Holding Christmas Hope

simeon2

Luke 2:22-40 NRSV

One of the great wonders of church is the surprises. Our worship on Christmas Eve was full of them. Sweet Little Jesus Boy becomes profoundly poignant when Brandy sings it without an instrument. While singing O Come All Ye Faithful, the magnificent sound of a trumpet is heard being played by someone we’ve never seen before. Young people stand tall behind this pulpit and share the Christmas story from the scriptures in a way that is soft and sweet, yet strong and stirring. A first-time visitor shows up, sits on the front row, and unexpectedly contributes to the worship service by helping us light our candles. The candles seem to flicker more beautifully during the singing Silent Night than we ever remembered. And who will forget Will and Natalie Brown walking in right before the service starts carrying their four-day old infant daughter.

It happens all the time. You are tired and give-out, but you get up and come to church anyway. You come more out of duty than desire. You come not really expecting anything surprising from what is certain to be a just another predictable service. You come fully expecting to leave the same way you came, unmoved, untouched, unchanged. But then, out of nowhere something happens that astonishes you: someone unexpectedly hugs you; a song you’ve sung a thousand times before astounds you; a word you’ve heard countless times startles you. God, in spite of everything, in spite of you, speaks. And everything, including you, is amazingly transformed. A tiny cracker and a sip of juice become more than sufficient. A simple handshake brings healing. A smile from an unassuming child generates hope.

Simeon had arrived to worship in the Temple as he had for many decades. He was as devoted to the Lord as anyone. For years he had been eagerly coming to the Temple expecting to be surprised by the presence of the Messiah; however, year after year he left each service disappointed.

It was just another ordinary Sabbath. Old Simeon was tired and give-out. Over the years, much of his anticipation had turned into doubt. But he got up and came to Temple anyway, more out of duty than desire, knowing that he would once again leave the service unmoved, untouched, and unchanged.

He came in through the front door, nodded politely to the usher who handed him an Order of Service that he had all but memorized, and settled in his usual seat for another predictable service. During the Prelude, he opened the bulletin and noticed that there was going to be another baby dedication service. As was their custom several times during the year, the minister was going to once again ask the congregation to bless a new born baby. Nothing unusual. Simeon had seen this a hundred times before.

But then, out of nowhere, it happened. After the Prelude, the Call to Worship, a hymn and the Invocation, this strange new couple unexpectedly came down the aisle holding a tiny baby. They were coming for the baby dedication service.

Simeon cannot explain how he knew it, but he knew it nonetheless. This was it. He could not keep his eyes off that baby during the prayers for the child and the parents, for he knew without a doubt that this was the Messiah, the Promised One God sent to save Israel.

In the middle of the dedication service, he grabbed the back of the pew in front of him with both of his hands and slowly pulled himself up to stand on his tired feet. Holding on to the pew in front of him, he shuffled past three people who were sitting beside him and made his way down the aisle to the front where the new parents were standing. Then he had the courage, some would say the audacity, to ask the parents if he could hold the tiny baby. He must have looked harmless enough, for Mary and Joseph handed the old gentleman their firstborn son without hesitation.

Again, Simeon cannot explain how he knew it, but he knew that he was holding more than a baby in his arms that morning. Astoundingly, he was holding hope in his arms. Amazingly, he was holding salvation in his arms. Holding none other than Christmas in his arms, Simeon had crossed off in his mind the only thing that was ever on his bucket list. He started praising God saying:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;  for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

That is the wonder of this thing called church. When we least expect it, God shows up and surprises us. We read a familiar scripture and hear something we’ve never heard before. We perform an ordinary ritual, like a Child Dedication Service, and something extraordinary happens that changes us forever.

Mary and Joseph showed up with their baby asking the likes of old men like Simeon to bless their new born baby, and the child ends up blessing Simeon.

We thought we knew what we were doing here this morning. We thought our friends Will and Natalie Brown have come merely presenting their infant, Graylyn Elizabeth, before the Lord. And we thought they came asking us, their family of faith, to take her in our church’s arms and bless her—Bless her by promising to teach her the faith, to share our knowledge of the Lord with her.

But, to our surprise, what if it is the other way around?

What if we are not here this morning to bless Graylyn, but Graylyn is actually here to bless us? Now, I know that Graylyn is not the Messiah; however, the Messiah had this to say about children like Graylyn: “Let the little ones come to me, for to such as these, belong the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).

I believe this means that Graylyn may have more to teach us about the ways of God than we could ever possibly teach her. I believe this means that Graylyn and the other children whom God has given us are not the future of the church, but are the church’s present. Surprisingly, they have much to give the church today. Unexpectedly, Graylyn, even as young and as little as she is, has much to teach the church this very moment.

On her eighth day in this world, Graylyn will never be more vulnerable, more dependent than she is right now. And because of this, she may never have more to teach us. Graylyn teaches us that if the church is going to look like the Kingdom of God, then the church must continually reach out, invite, bring in, accept and adopt, and care for those in our society who are the most vulnerable, the most dependent.

Graylyn teaches us that we are to feed those who cannot feed themselves, give drink to those you cannot drink on their own, clothe, shelter, comfort those in need, and love those who are the most frail, fragile and needy.

Graylyn affirms that it is the mission of the church to buy presents for children who have a parent in prison, build a handicap ramp for an elderly man or woman, bring gifts and carols to residents in a nursing home, make prayer quilts for the sick, rebuild a home in West Virginia, send medical supplies to Nicaragua, host a party for cancer patients at the hospital and dedicate ourselves to little children. Graylyn teaches us that we are the closest to living in the Kingdom of God, we come the closest to holding the Messiah in our arms, when we offer grace and hope to the least of our brothers and sisters.

However, Graylyn also teaches us something that may be even more important. The Messiah once said: “Unless one comes to me as a little child, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Graylyn may never be more honest, more real, and more genuine than she is today. What you see is what you get. There is no putting on airs with Graylyn. She’s not proud. There’s not a pretentious bone in her tiny body. When Graylyn is hungry, she is going to let us know. When she is distressed, saddened or in any discomfort, she is going to tell us. When she needs a change, she will cry out to us.

If we could only learn to be as honest as Graylyn: honest with each other, and honest with God. Before we can truly offer grace and hope to others, to the least of our brothers and sisters; we must confess our own need for grace and hope. We need to confess our own utter dependency on our Heavenly Parent. We need to confess our own weaknesses and our need for a savior who knows such vulnerability to pick us up, comfort us and change us in those places where we most need changing.

We thought we were going to come here this morning and hold a little girl named Graylyn Elizabeth Brown in our arms; however, through her honest vulnerability and her utter dependence, through the Christ who is revealed in her, amazingly, we hold hope in our arms, hope for the present and for the future. We hold salvation in our arms. We hold our mission in our arms. We hold Christmas in our arms. And with Simeon, by the grace of God, we will not leave this service unmoved, untouched, unchanged. We leave this morning praising God saying:

Master, now you are dismissing your servants in peace,    according to your word;  for our eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. Amen.

Response to Viral Video Attacking Farmville Central High School

FCHSTo avoid fueling the fire, I have been asked not to respond to the insanity surrounding Farmville Central High School regarding the reactions of Christian extremists to a vocabulary lesson set in an Islamic context. I do not always do what I am asked; however, this time, I am acquiescing. The following is my non-response:

Sometimes the actions and words of others can be so ludicrously ignorant and unreasonable that they are unworthy of any thoughtful response. People who make obviously uninformed and phobic statements regarding the race, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion of another do not merit serious debate. It is like arguing with someone who does not believe in gravity.

Click here for WNCT story.

The Power of Christmas

keep christ in christmas2014When God chose to reveal to the world God’s holy power over sin and evil, a power that is even victorious over death itself, God’s will was to come down. Because we could not ascend to God, God descended to us. God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, humbled God’s self to meet us where we are through a tiny baby, born down in a stable, laid down in a feeding troth for animals, and worshipped by downtrodden shepherds.

And since that night in Bethlehem, Jesus continued this downward will of God. Jesus said: “For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me…” (John 6:38).

The scriptures do say that Jesus grew upward in stature; however, we continually witnessed in him moving downwardly. We saw him continually bending himself to the ground, getting his hands dirty, to touch the places in people that most need touching.

When his uppity disciples chastised little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they could come to Jesus, Jesus argued that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.

While his disciples got on their high horses and argued about who was going to move up to be first in the Kingdom, Jesus frustrated them (and if we are honest, frustrated us) by doing things like moving down to sit at the lowest seat at the table, bending down to wash their feet, stooping down to welcome little children, crouching down to forgive a sinner, reaching down to pick up the poor, lowering himself down to serve the outcast, accept the marginalized, touch the leper, heal the sick, and raise the dead.

Jesus’ ministry was continually downward. While others exercised worldly power to move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a strange and peculiar power that moved him in the opposite direction.

It is not a power that rules but a power that serves.

It is not a power that takes but a power that gives.

It is not a power instills fear but a power that imparts love.

It is not a power that condemns but a power that forgives.

It is not a power that seizes but a power that suffers.

It is not a power that dominates but is a power that dies.

This is the way of Christ. This is the peculiar, power of Christmas.

Sadly, the ones proclaiming Christmas the loudest these days, most often proclaim it up on their high horses in the most uppity of ways.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Mark 1:1-8 NRSV

There is a Grinch lurking and working in our world seeking to steal Christmas. This Grinch is alive and real and every bit as mean and vile as that outcast of Whoville whose soul was an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled up knots. This Grinch can be found in every city, in every town, and in every rural community throughout our land. However, this Grinch is not among the usual suspects of the annually accused.

This Grinch is not Political Correctness. This Grinch is not the liberal sales clerk at Target greeting people on Christmas Eve with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” After all, wouldn’t the God who humbly came down to be born in the unpretentiousness of a stable want us to show a little humility to a devout Jew on that holy night, which, this year, also happens to be the last night of Chanukah?

Nor do I believe this Grinch is Secularism. Santa Claus, tiny little elves, flying reindeer, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman are a magical, wonderful part of this season that makes the eyes of children aglow. Again, I cannot imagine the Christ, Christmas Himself, calling things that bring such joy to children anything but holy and sacred.

But what about the Grinches of Consumerism, Greed and Materialism? What about the Grinch of Black Friday which is now taking over Thursday? What about the monsters of big business forcing people like my nineteen year-old son to work on Thanksgiving, preventing him from sharing a meal with his grandparents? Surely their hearts’ are nothing more than empty holes. Their brains are full of spiders, and they’ve got garlic in their souls.

They are certainly Grinchy, but as Grinchy as capitalism can be, I believe there is even a greater Grinch in our midst today, a Grinch even more nauseating and foul. There is a more crooked Grinch lurking and working in our world threatening to keep Christmas from coming.

To prepare the world for Christmas, for the coming of Christ into the world, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We are told that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him to be baptized, confessing their sins.

John the Baptizer was proclaiming a baptism of repentance. The Greek word translated repent, literally means to think differently, to see things differently. It means to see the world, ourselves, and God differently. John was proclaiming the good news of Christmas. He was trying to get the people to understand and to see that God is not far away from us but is very much with us. God is not against us, but is very much for us, and God is more alive and more at work in this world than we can sometimes believe. The message of Christmas can be summed up in two beloved verses of scripture:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17 NRSV).

And when people heard this message, they came from all over and did something that is a very difficult thing to do if you think God is against you, or you see that all of your sin and mess have separated you from God. They came from all over confessing their sins.

They came just as they were. They came openly, honestly, and transparently. They came freely, fearlessly and audaciously laying bare their imperfect souls before John, others and God. They came knowing that they would not be judged. They came seeing that they would not be condemned. They came with a new understanding that they would be accepted, a new vision that they would be forgiven. They came to be immersed in the unconditional love of God, to be enveloped by the unreserved grace of God. They came in the same spirit that lowly, sinful, shepherds came to kneel and worship before the manger. They came to the muddy banks of the Jordan River to join hands with fellow sinners and celebrate the good news of Christmas.

And ever since that Christmas was celebrated on that day through the honest confession of sin, there have been Grinches in every time in every land determined to stop it.

How does the Grinch steal Christmas? By simply deterring the confession of sins. By inhibiting such open honesty by proclaiming a message that is the exact opposite of the Christmas message.

The Christmas message is: “For God so loved the world…”

“God doesn’t love this world,” says the Grinch with a sour Grinchy frown. “God despises this world. Thus God wants people to separate themselves from this world, retreat into safe sanctuaries with the pure who don’t sin to smugly wait to one day escape to glory with kith and kin.”

“…that he gave his only Son…” says Christmas.

“God didn’t really give his Son,” the old Grinchy Claus hisses. “If God gave his Son, that would infer that salvation is free, no strings attached, no restrictions at all. “Surely,” says the Grinch “God wants people to earn this gift with right lifestyles, right beliefs, and right deeds after all.”

Christmas says: “…so that everyone who believes may not perish but have eternal life…”

The Grinch thinks up a lie and thinks it up quick: “Well, not everyone. Not the entitled. Not the undeserving. Not those who drink, party and cuss. God only helps and gives eternity to those who are willing to help themselves, those who think, look, believe and worship like us.”

The Christmas message is: “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…”

“Of course God did,” the Grinch counters with a smile most unpleasant, “And God wants us to look down our noses and judge others as if they smell, point our fingers at their sins and preach about Hell.”

“….but in order that the world might be saved through him,” says Christmas.

“Not saved but destroyed,” the Grinch laughs in his throat. “Haven’t you heard of Armageddon, the Apocalypse and the Judgment Day? Why else would there be hurricanes, earthquakes, and so much AIDS and Ebola today?”

John, the one preparing the world for Christmas reveals that Christmas begins with the confessing of sin, and infers that if any Grinch wants to steal Christmas, if any Grinch wants to keep Christmas from coming, they need to merely discourage such confession.

So who is this Grinch that wants to steal Christmas?

Why, just ask yourself: Where is the one place in the world where the confession of sin is most difficult? In a bar with a total stranger? At a coffee shop with a close friend?  In the work place with a co-worker? No, sadly, it can be right here, right now, in this place that claims to proclaim the true reason for the season, in this place that claims to prepare the hearts of all to receive Christmas. The place that claims to be the most Grinchless place in the world, if we are not careful, can sometimes the most Grinchy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote about this Grinch:

Pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal their sin from themselves and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.[i]

And Quaker Theologian Richard Foster made the following observation about this Grinch:

Confession is so difficult a discipline for us partly because we view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We come to feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We could not bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. . . . But if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God’s love and to confess our need openly before our brothers and sisters. We know that we are not alone in our sin. The fear and pride which cling to us like barnacles cling to others also. In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied but transformed.[ii]

I have often said that of any place on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of grace, love and forgiveness. Without fear of being judged, condemned and ridiculed, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And receive grace. Receive love. Receive salvation.[iii] Receive Christmas.

So, whenever the church creates an environment that prohibits honesty, openness, and transparency; encourages people to be fake, conceal their pain, pretend to be good, upright and holy, their lives devoid of any real sin, mess or gunk; well, the three words that best describe it are as follows, and I quote, “Stink, stank, stunk.”

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 1939.

[ii] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 1978

[iii] Jarrett Banks, Issues of Homosexuality and the Church 

The Realness of Christmas

wounded children

Instead of decorating my tree this year with Christmas music playing in the background, I decorated it while watching the nightly news. As I hung ornaments, I listened to the tragic story of a high school student killed in an automobile accident. As I turned on the lights on the tree, I glanced up to see pictures of mothers with their children escaping from Syria into refugee camps in Lebanon. I saw images of many children: some starving, others injured, some dying, others sick, all very afraid. I thought to myself, “I need to turn this depressing mess off and put on something Christmasy.”

Then it occurred to me. This is probably as close to Christmasy as it gets, for this is Christmas undecorated. This is real Christmas, and it is a shame that we try to cover it up with colorful paper and tie a bow around it. We string it with lights and decorate it. We romanticize and sentimentalize the whole Christmas scene with gleeful music and cheerful food.

Perhaps it is because in our shallow 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 hunger, no disease, no anxiety, no fear, no mourning. Our nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene.

However, this was not the reality of the first Noel. Christmas reality was not beautiful and was far from perfect. And no matter how hard we 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. 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 like to 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 reality.

This is the reality of it, and this is the good news of it! The good news of Christmas is that there is nothing glamorous, glitzy sentimental, or romantic about it. The good news of Christmas is that God came into our depressing mess. 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.

Someone who was suffering with terminal cancer once told me: “Although I cannot explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become. In the moments of my most immense suffering, God is the most real to me.”

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 and the most broken.

Thank God something as depressing as the nightly news can actually be Christmasy.

Christmas Begins in the Wilderness

TheGriswoldFamilyChristmasTreeMark 1:6-8 NRSV

When does Christmas begin for you? Was it on Black Friday at the mall, or while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Was it last Sunday morning as the first candle of Advent was lit in this place? When does it start? When do you begin to realize the good news that is Christmas? Where are you when it happens? On the Town Common during the annual Christmas tree lighting? Walking down Main Street during the Taste of Farmville? Going caroling with the children from church? Maybe it is not until Christmas Eve, as you light your candle and sing, Silent Night. Perhaps it is when you are alone at home, listening to Christmas music and decorating your own tree.

For Mark, the good news of Christmas begins in what most of us would call a strange and unexpected place. Unlike us, the good news of Christmas does not start with some warm sentimental scene. And unlike Matthew and Luke, for Mark, the good news of Christmas does not begin with heavenly visitations, choirs of angels, the worship of shepherds, a star rising in the East, or Magi bearing gifts. For Mark, Christmas does not even begin with a little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

For Mark, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the good news of Emmanuel, God with us, the good news of Christmas, begins somewhere out in the wilderness. And he is not talking about some snow-covered winter wonderland where the Griswold’s find their family Christmas tree.

For Jewish people aware of their history, Christmas begins in that place that was experienced somewhere between slavery in Egypt and the Promised Land. Somewhere out in that place of testing, trial and temptation, somewhere out in that place of doubt, dread and despair, that place where you do not know if you want to live or die, that place with the Red Sea swelling before you and Pharaoh’s army advancing behind you. That place where Elijah fled to save his life from Jezebel’s army and then prayed for God to take his life away. That place where even Christmas himself would be haunted by wild beasts and tempted by Satan. For Mark, Christmas begins in the most strange and unexpected place, a raw, dangerous place called the wilderness.

The beginning of the good news that is Christmas occurs in that place where God seems to be against you, or appears to be so far away that you doubt God’s very existence—suffering in an intensive care unit at the hospital, laying in utter misery in a nursing home, holding the hand of a parent with Alzheimer’s, picking out a casket for a spouse in a funeral home, at home anxiously trying to pay your monthly bills, in the middle of a fight with a loved one, in Pearl Harbor 73 years ago this hour, in any place where people are overtaken by tension and terror, overwhelmed by despair and disappointment, or overcome by sin and shame.

Last weekend, I was at home trying to get my own Christmas started as I do every weekend after Thanksgiving. However, this year it began a little differently, you might say it began strangely and unexpectedly.

Instead of decorating my tree this year with Christmas music playing in the background, I decorated it while watching the local news. As I hung ornaments, I listened to the tragic story of a high school student killed in an automobile accident outside of Pinetops. As I turned on the lights of the tree, I glanced up to see pictures of mothers with their children escaping from war-torn Syria into refugee camps in Lebanon. I saw images of many children: some starving, others injured, some dying, others sick, all very afraid. I saw gruesome images of parents holding the lifeless body of their child. And I thought to myself, “I need to turn this depressing mess off and put on something a little more Christmasy.”

Then it occurred to me. This may be as close to Christmasy as it gets, for this is Christmas in the wilderness. The Good News according to Mark concurs that this is Christmas, raw Christmas. This is where Christmas truly begins. This is Christmas untamed and undecorated. For Christmas began when God came into a depressing mess.

And no matter how hard we try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend; we cannot escape the raw truth of it. Christmas begins, says Mark, with a “voice crying out in the wilderness.” And there is no music, no matter how Christmasy, that we can play loud enough to drown out this voice. There are no decorations glitzy enough and no lights bright enough to temper this voice.

This voice can be heard throughout every refugee camp in Lebanon and by every parent mourning the loss of their child. It can be heard in every intensive care unit, in every nursing home and funeral home. This voice can be heard in every wilderness, in every depressing mess on earth.

Through the good news of Christmas, God is crying out: I am for you; not against you. I am with you; not away from you. And I am more real, more alive, and more at work in this world than you can sometimes believe. As the prophet Isaiah said: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:19).

The good news is: Christmas does not begin with us. It does not begin when we get the house all decorated or get all of our shopping done. We do not have to host a Christmas party or even go to one. We don’t even have to go to church, light a candle or sing a carol. Christmas begins with God and with a voice crying out in the wilderness, in those places where we may least expect it, but need it the most.

Some of us know that Luke tells his beloved Christmas story in chapter 2 of his gospel. However, I believe he perhaps tells it more poignantly in chapter 10.

A man was traveling down a wilderness road that was so dangerous that it was sometimes called “the way of blood” or “the bloody pass.” And there out in the wilderness, the man fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, leaving him half dead on the side of the road. As the man lay on the roadside, somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho, somewhere between life and death, wanting to live, but also maybe wanting to die, he is ignored by two religious leaders who are also traveling down the same road.

God only knows why these men who you would expect to stop and help ignored the man. Perhaps they thought the robbers were still nearby, or maybe they thought the man lying on ground was only pretending, playing some sort of trick, so that when they came near him, he would beat and rob them. For whatever reason, they believed it was much too risky for them to stop.

Then came this one, Luke calls him a Samaritan, which means this was someone who was despised and rejected by the religious establishment, someone who was often misunderstood and rarely respected, someone who knew something about pain and brokenness, betrayal and abandonment, God-forsakenness; someone who had spent many days and nights in the wilderness himself, tempted and tried.

This one who was the least expected to stop and help, saw the man. He saw the man’s wounds, saw the man’s fear, saw the man’s despair and was moved with mercy and compassion. And there in the wilderness he risked his own life, as he sacrificially came to him, selflessly bent himself down to the ground, and joined the man.

The man did not have to do anything to make this one come to him. Out of pure love, unconditional and unreserved, this one just came. He then touched the man where the man most needed touching, pouring oil and wine on the man’s wounds and bandaging them. He then picked the man up and safely carried him out of the wilderness. He stayed with him, at his side through the darkness of the night. When morning came, he paid for the man’s debts, and made the promise: “I will come back. I will return.”

Of course, we call this “The Story of the Good Samaritan.” However, I believe it should be called, “The Story of Christmas.” A story that begins with a voice of mercy and compassion crying out in the wilderness, in those strange, dangerous places where we least expect it, but most need it.

Hospice caregivers will often speak of a dying person “rallying” for a brief time right before death. A person who has been non-responsive will begin to talk. One who has been confused or disoriented will become suddenly coherent. And those who have not had any food for sometimes days may request something to eat or drink. As a pastor, I have seen this “rally” more times than I can possibly count. I am not sure exactly why it happens; I just know that it happens, and it happens often.

My faith tells me that it is Christmas. It is God seeing one lying in the wilderness in their weakest, most broken state, seeing one in their most desperate, most vulnerable need, and it is God being moved with mercy and compassion for that one. It is a voice crying out from the heavens into the wilderness: “I am for you, not against you, I am with you, not away from you. I am Emmanuel. I will risk my own life for you. I will give my all to take care of your wounds and to pick you up, to forgive all of your debts. And when you are ready, I will come back, and I will take you unto myself, so that where I am, you will also be.”

The good news for us this day is that Christmas comes to us all when we confess that we are all half dead, lying on some wilderness road east of Eden, beaten up so badly by this sinful world that no one can tell whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, black or white, slave or free.[i] Whenever we confess our brokenness, our sinfulness, and our need for a Savior, a voice from heaven cries out in our wilderness and Christmas comes. Christmas always comes.

When does Christmas begin for you? When does it start? Where are you when you begin to realize the good news that is Christmas? The good news, according to Mark, is that Christmas begins when and where you may least expect it, but need it the most.

[i] This sentence is adapted from words spoken by Frank Tupper in one of my theology classes at Southern Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, 1989-1992.

Wounded Strength – A Testimony by Anthony Reiff

Rocky 3Anthony Reiff, 14, a freshman at Farmville Central, gave the following testimony during the Hanging of the Green Service at First Christian Church on November 30, 2014

Life hands you problems that you will have to deal with. These problems can cause mental and physical wounds. Some wounds are greater than others. I personally have more wounds than an average teenager. They are what make me who I am.

These wounds can make me weak. People will try to get my head and use my wounds to hurt me more. I will always have opponents who will try to take me down because of my wounds.

But these wounds can also make me stronger. If I give my life to Jesus, who was also wounded, he can take my wounds and make me stronger. Jesus also had people who tried to get in his head and hurt him more. Jesus had people who tried to take him down. But Jesus used those wounds to save the world, and to save me.

I look at it this way. Jesus, through the church, is training me to rise up against all of my troubles and never be defeated. Jesus is always in my corner.

Therefore, when people try to tell me that I am worthless, that I have no purpose, I am confident that God has given me a purpose. God has given you a purpose to be here on this earth too. You may not know what your purpose is but trust me, you will.

So, for all of you who are having problems, go home, look in a mirror and say, “I am a champion.” Because you are. You are a champion. Because God is always in your corner.