Christmas Shoes

sandals2

John 1:6-8, 19-28 NRSV

Regarding the gift of Christmas, the gift of God’s enfleshed self to the world, John said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

It was written in Jewish law that “pupils should do everything that is commanded by their teacher with the exception of unlacing the teacher’s shoes.”  The subservient task of kneeling to the ground and unlacing another’s shoe was something only a slave should perform.[i]

This means that John not only regarded himself unworthy to be a disciple of Jesus, he believed he was unworthy to even be a slave of Jesus. When he compared himself to the one wearing the shoes of Christmas, John regarded himself as lower than the lowliest lowly.

And who could blame him? John was talking about God, the Holy Creator of all that is, the Divine One who has come down to earth wearing shoes. John was talking about the great sovereign of the universe from on high, miraculously and lovingly stooping  low enough to the earth to kneel down to the ground,  put on, lace up and wear shoes. John was talking about heavenly feet accustomed to walking on celestial streets where angels trod that have put on earthly shoes in order to walk the same roads each one of us walk.

Although it was John’s plan to make our windy and rocky roads straight and smooth for these holy shoes, the purpose of these shoes was to walk every crooked path, experience every twist and turn, identify with every bump, every dip, every rut. The Lord of Hosts stooped down, knelt down, and laced up shoes to walk down snaky roads; travel down uncertain roads; journey down long, lonely, and desolate roads.

God knelt down and put shoes on feet that would grow weary and sore from those roads. God laced up shoes that would cause great suffering when Jesus’ feet would swell, blister and bleed.

Those shoes ran down fearful, foreign roads to escape Herod’s sword. Those shoes would journey down dark, dangerous wilderness roads that try the soul. Those shoes would travel down desperate roads to bring good news to the poor. Those shoes would travel down neglected roads to give dignity to those marginalized by a religion that had been hijacked by evil. Those shoes would walk roads lined with the hypocritical and judgmental to defend and forgive the sinner. Those shoes would move down roads paved with suffering to heal and restore the sick. They would go down tear-soaked roads to comfort mourners and raise the dead.

And near the end of his road on this earth, those holy shoes, worn, frayed and tattered by life, would lead him to a table with his friends. After supper, he would get up from that table, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. He would then pour water into a basin. And like his humble beginning in a lowly manger, he would once again stoop down, kneel to the ground, and lovingly, empathetically and subserviently untie the shoes of each one at that table, even the shoes of the one who would betray him and of the one who would deny ever knowing him.

Now, in the historical and cultural context of the day, the disciples’ shoes would be removed long before they reclined at the table. However, figuratively and theologically speaking, Jesus untied their laces and removed their shoes.[ii]

Relief, respite and release overcame them as they realized that none of their unworthiness prevents their Lord from graciously taking their feet into his hands and washing away all of the dirt and grime from every road they had ever traveled. None of their filth is too offensive. There are no stains too deep. The fresh water from the basin that restores, refreshes and relaxes their wearied feet is miraculously transformed into living water that saves their wearied souls.

The good news of Christmas is that the Holy One, whose laces we are unworthy to untie, comes to us, stoops down, kneels before us, and unlaces our shoes, freeing us in the places we have been too tightly bound.  He empathetically takes our feet into his hands and washes our dirty, sore and weary feet, and makes us ready for the road again.

That is the good news of Christmas. Now, listen to the good irony of Christmas.

John believed he was unworthy to untie the shoes of Christmas. However, because of those Christmas shoes, John is not only worthy to untie and remove those shoes, John is actually worthy to put on and wear those shoes.

Through the gift of Christmas, through the gift of the God who has walked where we walk, through the gift of the Divine who stoops down, unties and removes our shoes, washing our feet and our souls, we are made worthy to not only untie the shoes of Christmas, but to wear the shoes of Christmas. We are worthy to put on Christmas shoes to go where he went, to do as he did, to include as he included, to forgive as he forgave, to love as he loved, to bend ourselves to the ground to touch the places in people that most need touching.

It is believed that fourteenth century saint Teresa of Avila once said:

Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, and yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

The Apostle Paul has written:

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news (Romans 10:15).

Don’t worry. It is perfectly natural to feel unworthy to untie those laces, wear those shoes, to be the feet, the body of Christ.  And if you believe you are unworthy you are in very good company.

Abraham and Sarah did not believe they were young enough to be worthy (Genesis 17:17). Jacob was not truthful enough to be worthy (Genesis 27). Moses was not articulate enough (Exodus 4:10). David was not faithful enough. (2 Samuel 11:2-4). Rahab was not pure enough (Joshua 2:1). Jeremiah was not mature enough (Jeremiah 1:6). Mary was not rich or powerful or old enough (Luke 1).

Yet, God makes the unworthy worthy to be God’s enfleshed presence in this world, to be God’s body, hands, eyes, and feet in this world. As the Apostle Paul reminds each of us:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

William Willimon tells a wonderful story about a visit to a fraternity house one night while he was the campus minister at Duke University. The reputations of the fraternity houses at Duke were getting so bad that the University Dean required each fraternity to have a certain number of religious programs each year to give them at least some semblance of respectability.

One of the fraternities invited Willimon to lead one of the programs. He was to come to the frat-house and give a lecture on “Morality and Character on Campus.”

On the appointed evening, Willimon went to fraternity and knocked on the door. When the door opened, he was greeted by a young boy who appeared to be nine or ten years old.  He thought, “What in the world is a little boy like this doing in a frat house at this time of night?”

“They are waiting for you in the common room,” the little boy said politely. Willimon followed the boy back to the common room where all the young men were gathered, glumly waiting for the preacher’s presentation.

Willimon says for about an hour he talked about morality, responsibility, character and faith and how the frat houses on campus gave little evidence of any of those things. When he finished his talk he asked if there were any questions. Of course they were none. So he thanked them for inviting him and headed out.

One young man got up and walked him to the door. Before they got to the door, Willimon overhead him say to the little boy, “Hey buddy, you go and get ready for bed. I’ll come up, tuck you in and read you a story in a few minutes.”

When they got outside, the fraternity boy lit a cigarette, took a long drag on it, and thanked the pastor for coming out.

Willimon turned and asked, “Who is that kid in there, and what is he doing here?”

“Oh, that’s Donny,” said the young man. “Our fraternity is part of the Big Brother program in Durham. We met Donny that way. His mom is addicted to drugs and is having a tough time. Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him. So we told Donny to call us if he ever needs us. We go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it is okay to go back home. We take him to school, buy his clothes, books, and stuff like that.”

Willimon stood there dumbfounded. He said, “That’s amazing. You know, I take back everything I said in there about you guys being immoral and irresponsible.”

“I tell you what’s amazing,” said the college boy as he took another drag on his cigarette, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”[iii]

In other words: “What’s amazing is that God, the Holy Creator of all that is, would make an unworthy guy like me worthy to not only untie, but to wear the shoes of Christmas.

Let us pray together.

God, continue to remind us that you have made each of worthy to untie and wear Christmas shoes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Amen.

 

INVITATION TO THE TABLE

The angel announced to the shepherds that they were bringing good news of great joy for all people. All people.

Thus, all people, those who belong to this church, those who belong to other churches, and those who belong to no church, are invited to gather around this table and receive holy communion. All people.

This means people of great faith and people of great doubt. All people.

May all prepare for communion as we remain seated and sing together.

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world as the enfleshed presence of God, the body of Christ wearing Christmas shoes on your feet.

Go remembering that Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, and yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

And may the love of Christmas, the grace of Christmas and the communion of Christmas be with us all. Amen.


[i] Alan Culpepper, Smyth and Helwys Commentary: Mark, 2007, p. 47.

[ii] From a sermon by J. Will Ormond entitled Advent on a Shoestring preached during Advent in 1987 at the Columbia Theological Seminary.

[iii] From a sermon by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, January 2006, p. 19.

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We Need a Little Christmas Right this Very Minute

john the baptist

Living in a nation where greed, racism and bigotry make Christians blind to all kinds evil, even overlooking accusations of child molestation, I cannot help but to think that what we need more than anything else is a little Christmas, right this very minute!

The gospels tell us that in order to get a little Christmas, we first need to get a little John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness telling people the God’s honest truth.

They tell us that “multitudes” went to hear the truth, even though they knew that sometimes the truth hurts. However, they instinctively knew that it was the truth that was going to set them free.

John preached something like: “You are not right. Some part of you needs to be cut off; something inside of you needs to be burned away.”

From his prolific sermon illustrations, “the fire, the ax, and chaff,” John was preaching that before something can be born anew, something rotten has to die. Before healing can take place, something sick has to be removed. As the “Me Too” movement has taught us in recent weeks, before something can be restored, someone needs to resign.

And as John preached with brutal honesty, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the first thing they saw was a little Christmas.

As we prepare this place of worship for Christmas, making a way for Christ, may we search our souls, asking what we must we do to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ.

As we decorate this place with poinsettias, remembering the star that signaled love being born in a town called Bethlehem, may all indifference perish, may silence in the face of evil pass away, may all complacency be banished, as we stand up and speak out for the inclusive love of Christ to be born in right here in our town.

As we decorate this place with wreaths signifying the never-ending reign of Christ, may all despair and resignation die, as we resist to fight hate and persist to do justice in our world knowing that the love of God never ends.

As we decorate this place with mistletoe known throughout the world as the plant of peace, may the fear that divides us be removed, as we do what we can, where we can, however we can, to work for peace on earth.

As we decorate this place with holly and ivy, may all self-righteousness and spiritual pride and any feelings of superiority be cut off, as we cling to divine strength.

As we decorate this place with the fire of candles, may all prejudice be burnt away, as we light up our world with grace.

May our lights shine honestly, pointing out all of our failures and flaws, yet giving us the mercy to be better and do better.

May our lights shine so brightly that the eyes of all people are able to see a little Christmas.

Room for Christmas

hope

Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV

It was a dark time in a dark world. The prophet Isaiah prays a desperate prayer asking God to rip open the heavens and come down and heal the nation, to bring peace on earth and joy to the people; a prayer asking God to establish a new order that will override the destructiveness of those in power. It’s a prayer of hope that God will come in the same liberating way as God had come in the past.

However, the mood of the prayer changes. Hopeful expectation turns into dreadful despair as the sins and transgressions of the people are considered.

The term “unclean” means “ritually unacceptable.” It is not believed that Israel is a community where God’s presence is willing to come. Like a “filthy cloth,” the nation is so impure and contaminated that no one would dare touch it.

Like “a faded leaf,” it’s in danger of rotting away. Because the people have called on false gods, there seems to be no room for the God of truth. Because they have turned their backs on social justice, there seems to be no place for the God of mercy. Because the people have chosen a way of violence, there seems to be no way for the God of peace. There seems to be no hope.

But then, the mood changes once more with one of the most hopeful words in the scriptures: “YET!”

YET, you are our Parent. YET, you are our potter. YET, we are all the work of your hand. YET, we are your people.

Isaiah hopefully asserts: YET, you made us, you own us, you are responsible for us, we belong to you. Thus, we trust that you will indeed come again to love us, to save us, just as you have come in the past.

Advent is a time of celebrating this hopeful: “YET!”

It was a dark time in a dark world. The sick and injured were passed by on the other side by prominent men claiming to be religious. The poor were unfairly taxed. Foreigners, scapegoated. Women, objectified. Victims of abuse, stigmatized. Anyone different, marginalized. The entire nation, demoralized.

YET, a peasant girl named Mary carries hope in her womb and a song in her heart:

 ‘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…

..he has scattered the proud…
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

This is the hope of Advent! The world seems dark, YET, the Light of the World is coming!

Later, the parents-to-be were on the road to pay taxes to a puppet king of an occupied land. The road was long, and being with child made the road especially difficult. And to make things more difficult, when it was time for the baby to be born, they discovered that there was no room in the inn.

There was no room. Sounds like the desperate prayer of Isaiah.

There was no room. There was no place. There was no way. There was no hope.

YET, as God had proved over and over throughout history, from the covenant of Abraham to the great Exodus, there is nothing in all of creation that can separate the world from God’s love. For God, would once again come! In spite of every demonic power that tried to thwart God’s coming, God came.

And the good news of this Advent season is that we know that God still comes. And there is nothing in all of creation, nor things above nor below, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor life nor death that can stop God from coming.

A church once presented a Christmas play. You know the kind. I used to be in one every year when I was growing up. Three boys playing shepherds are carrying long sticks wearing bath robes with towels wrapped around their heads. And three more boys playing wise men wearing cardboard Burger-King crowns wrapped in Reynolds Wrap are carrying boxes decorated with left-over Christmas garland. They all walk up on the chancel, greet Mary and Joseph, and bow down before the baby Jesus.

Well, during one particular play, after the wise men and shepherds came and bowed before Jesus, a spokesperson for the wise men made the announcement: “We three kings have traveled from the East to bring the baby Jesus gifts of gold, circumstance and mud.” Of course, laughter filled the sanctuary.

But you know what they say: “out of the mouths of babes.”

In the circumstance of being told there is no room for you, there is no place for you, there is no way for you, and there is no hope for you, through Christ, God came to Mary and Joseph and God comes to us and says: “YET!”

The good news of Advent is that God comes to us in all of our circumstances and offers us the assurance that there is no circumstance on earth or in heaven that is beyond God’s amazing grace.

And coming as a human being, coming into the world as a fleshly body, a body made up of dust and water, God comes and joins us in our mud.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of pain and sickness and offers comfort and healing.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of loneliness and fear and shares divine presence and a peace beyond understanding.

The world says there is no room; things are not going to get any better. The world says there is no way; the good old days are long gone. The world says there is no place; evil will get the best of you. The world says there is no hope; peace on earth and good will shall never happen.

YET, a young woman named Mary goes into labor as God says: “I am working all things together for the good!”

YET, a baby is born in the darkness as God says: “The best days of life are always before you.”

YET, a child cries in the night as God says: “Although you cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are coming!

The world says: “There is no room. You will never amount to anything.”

The world says: “There is no way. Sin will always get the best of you.”

The world says: “There is no place for you. Nobody really cares about you.”

The world says: “For you, there is no room, no way, no place, no hope.”

YET, a baby is wrapped in bands of cloth born to underserving, unwed teenagers in an occupied land, as God says: “I love you just as you are, and I come to wrap you in my mercy, clothe you with my grace. I know your sins and I forgive you. I will always be with you and never away from you. I will always be for you and never against you. I will always stay by your side fighting for you, even if it means dying for you.”

The world says: “Racism will never end. Bigotry will not cease. Misogyny isn’t going away. There is no way this country will ever come together. There is no room for diversity. There is no place for equality. There is no hope for unity.”

YET, a brown-skinned baby’s birth to a Hebrew woman is announced by angels: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people. For you, ALL of you, a baby is born who is Christ the Lord, and through him there is no longer Jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one!”

The good news of Advent is while the world often seems dark, YET the light of God will not be diminished.

Fake news seems to divide us, YET the good news that unites us will not suppressed.

The poor always seem to get the raw end of the deal, YET the justice of God will not be defeated.

The sound of gun violence is deafening, YET the Word of God will not be silenced.

Our leaders rule with fear-mongering, YET the Prince of Peace will not be conquered.

The powerful lie to push their agendas, YET truth cannot be hidden.

Hate seems to have its way, YET love will not lose.

Sin seems to get the best of us, YET grace will not fail.

Despair seems to overwhelm, YET hope will not die.

The nation feels like a faded leaf that’s about to rot away, YET the kingdom of God will reign forever and ever.

It’s Advent, and our world grows darker; YET, it’s Advent, and the Light of the World is coming!

And the darkness will not overcome it.

It’s Advent. God is acting. The Spirit is moving. Christ is coming. Hallelujah.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: One Shepherd’s Story

 

Written for the children’s Christmas program entitled “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for First Christian Church, Fort Smith, AR. 


AngelShepherds

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the dark,

Not a light was shining, not even a spark.

Yet, people were hoping for some kind of sign;

That something would happen, that God’s light would shine.

 

The children were hungry, so afraid and tired.

It was joy. It was peace and love they desired.

Mama was worried, and I was such a mess.

Neither one of us could sleep, nor could we rest.

 

When out in the fields we both heard a loud sound,

We went outside to take a good look around.

We met friends who were watching our flock by night;

Up in the sky, we saw a heavenly sight!

 

Angels singing about good news of great joy

For every woman and man, girl and boy.

They sang about God coming down to the earth.

They sang about the promise of a new birth.

 

All barriers broken, even religion and race—

With unconditional love and unfettered grace!

The love was unearned and the grace was so free,

All we could do was drop down to our knees.

 

Down on the ground, I pondered the intrusion,

I thought that this might all be an illusion.

‘Twas hard to believe, much harder to behold!

The world was so scary, so dark and so cold.

 

But it wasn’t a dream! It was all very real!

And the angels had more good news to reveal!

“To you is born in the city of David,

A Savior for whom the whole world has waited!”

 

“The child will be wrapped from his head to his foot

In bands of cloth. In a manger he’ll be put.

Although he’ll look like an ordinary kid,

The light he’ll give can never ever be hid.”

 

Without hesitation we knew we must go!

We all went together, the children in tow.

We found God’s gift, just as the angels foretold.

The world no longer seemed dark, nor was it cold.

 

His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples—how merry!

His brown skin so pure, his nose like a berry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.

This baby loved me. Somehow, God told me so!

 

The shepherds, my fam‘ly, they felt the same way!

Could this be the answer to all we had prayed?

He was so precious, so humble and so mild.

We bowed at the manger of this holy child.

 

He was tiny and meek, but he was no elf.

I cried when I saw him, in spite of myself!

But a wink of his eye, a turn of his head,

Let us all know that we had nothing to dread.

 

He spoke not a word, but the babe said so much;

Lifting not a finger, our hearts the child touched.

Laying in the straw, he closed his eyes and slept.

We turned toward each other; to our feet we leapt!

 

We sang, we danced for all that had taken place:

The angels, the baby, the amazing grace!

And to all we exclaimed with all of our might:

“Into the world’s darkness shines forth a great light!”

Thanksgiving Day Collusion

Turkey

Like many of us, after a big Thanksgiving meal, the only thing I want to do is take a nap. It is like I am in some drug-induced coma!

Several years ago, we were told that the culprit behind our Thanksgiving afternoon slumber and subsequent Advent hangover was too much Tryptophan!

Although scientists are now telling us that the amount of Tryptophan found in turkeys is no greater than the amount found in chicken, there still seems to be something about Turkey that makes it difficult to keep one’s eyes open watching the Dallas Cowboys Thursday afternoon.

Do you know what I think?

[warning: satire ahead]

I think there might be some type of criminal collusion afoot here, some type of evil conspiracy to make Christians sleep through the next four weeks that we call Advent! In addition to the Tryptophan, perhaps our turkeys have been inserted with some drug to make Christians miss the real reason for this most wonderful of seasons!

We essentially sleep through Advent and Christmas each year and miss the good news that the God who created the heavens and earth loves all of us so much that God humbled God’s self and became one of us, suffering for us even to the point of death, even death on the cross.

How else can one explain the number of Christians who believe God calls some people “abominations” simply because of the way they were born? How else can one explain the number of Christians who defend men who brag about molesting women or prey on fourteen-year old girls? How else can one explain how many Christians believe that God is behind hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires? How else can one explain Christians who dehumanize and scapegoat others for living a different faith, speaking a different language, or having a different skin tone? What else explains the apathy of so many Christians towards the poor and the marginalized? What explains the failure of so many Christians to love their neighbors?

Maybe Christians have eaten so much turkey at Thanksgiving that they’ve slept through countless Christmases!

Christians go through the whole month of December with their head in a fog, their souls numb to the good news that God is with us all and for us all, always working all things together in our world for the good. Every year, wearing turkey goggles, we somehow fail to see the good news of Christmas.

Now, I know I am not going to convince you to skip the turkey this year. Therefore, I urge all of you to plan to detox your souls by participating in our Advent Services of Worship leading up to Christmas Eve. Fight the terrible turkey withdrawals! Stay awake! And see the good news that God is Emmanuel, God with us!

Disappointment at Christmas

christmas-disappointment-7159866

Matthew 11:2-11 NRSV

It’s the Third Sunday of Advent. The days are getting shorter. The nights are growing longer. The last month of the year is a darker, colder place to live. And it is in this cold December darkness that we are all a little more sensitive, a little more attuned to the real darkness and chill of our world. The world around us appears even more fragile than usual, more harsh, and more broken.

Human service organizations report record number of volunteers and donations in the days leading up to Christmas. It’s really kind of silly when you think about it. The homeless are still homeless in July. The cold are even colder come February. Nursing home residents won’t be any younger when March arrives, and the hospitals are filled with the sick every month of the year. But at Christmas, our hearts become a little more tender, and they tend to bleed just a little bit more.

And here lies our great December disappointment. Our holiday awareness of the world’s plight is the great paradox of Christmas. If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and be Emmanuel, God with us, why is there so much pain and suffering in our world? Why is there so much poverty, sickness, injustice, and pure evil? Why is this world so cold, so dark?

Death, divorce, disease, destitution, desperation, despair—darkness—it envelops us like a December Arctic blast.

If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and dwell among us, if Christmas really occurred, if God truly came, if good news actually happened, why is this world still so cold? Why are we left disappointed?

I believe these are the questions with which John the Baptizer struggled.

As we mentioned last week, John is the very first character in the Christmas drama. He is the one of whom Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than [he]”. He is the one who had given his entire life to God, who had very faithfully and courageously lived out his purpose in life preparing the world for the advent of the Messiah. His important role in salvation history had been prophesied years earlier by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. And he fulfilled this role with utmost humility and commitment.

When people felt led to worship him, John quickly said, “No, for there is one who is coming who is more powerful than me, for I am not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”

And what does he get? What is his reward?

Imprisonment. He is locked up in a cold, dark cell waiting for the Romans to cut off his head.

Talk about Christmas paradoxes!

“Wait one minute!” John must have thought. “This can’t be happening! Not to me! Not to the one who was chosen by God to prepare the hearts of people for the Advent of the Messiah! I have been so faithful, so courageous. I have sacrificed, and I have given my all. And just look at me now! Look what I have gotten! Look where I am! My world could not be more cold, more dark!  Something is just not right about this.”

Can you relate?

I can.

So, there, in prison, enveloped in disappointment, John sent word asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Are you the messiah? Are you the one about whom I have been preaching all these years?

“Or are we to wait for another?” Someone who is even more powerful. Someone who will finally come and set this world straight. For if you are truly the Messiah, why is my world so dark? Why am I sitting in prison about to lose my head? Why do I feel the way that I feel? Why am I so disappointed? Something is just not right with this picture. Jesus, I want, I need some answers!”

Jesus answered John alright. Just not the way he hoped he might answer. Jesus told his disciples to “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

What is Jesus telling John by pointing to these signs of the Messiah’s coming?

Well, I know what he is not telling John the Baptist. As one who has read about John ten chapters earlier in Matthew and as one who knows something of the disappointment of this world, I know that Jesus was not telling John what John wanted to hear.

Jesus was not saying, “Yes, John, I am the one. I am the Messiah of the world who is coming with my ax in hand to cut down the Romans and throw them into the fire! With my winnowing fork, I am coming to clear the threshing floor and burn your enemies with an unquenchable fire!

So Cuz, you just sit tight, because Christmas is coming and things are about to get straightened out! Somebody’s coming to town and he’s making a list! He’s checking it twice! So all who are against you, why, they better watch out!”

No, Jesus said, “I am he. I am Christmas. However, Christmas is not carrying an ax and a winnowing fork and harsh words of condemnation. I’m carrying bread for the hungry. I am carrying water for the thirsty, and I’m carrying words of forgiveness for the sinners.”

The one who is more powerful than John comes, but this powerful one comes with a different type of power: a selfless, self-expending power. He comes to rule not with an iron fist, but with outstretched arms. He comes to love and to save and to die. The Messiah goes into villages, not to burn them down with unquenchable fire. But goes into villages to eat at the table with sinners, to give hope to the poor, to bring wholeness to the broken, and to give life to the dead.” This one who is more powerful than John comes as a suffering servant.

From his cold, dark prison cell, John the Baptist heard about this so he sent word inquiring, “Are you the one? Are you the Messiah who is to come?  Or are we to look for another?”  John’s whole ministry had been pointing to Jesus, saying that he is the one. Now John asks Jesus, “Are you really the one?”

John preached, “The Messiah is coming!  He’s going to fix everything.  He’s going to straighten the whole thing out. He’s going to finally set things right.  But now the Messiah had come. And John the Baptist is in prison. And he’s about to have his head served up on a silver platter.

Anticipation of the Messiah has now met the reality of the Messiah.  And for John, and if we are honest, for even us today, there is some disappointment.

And all John was told was to look for these signs of his coming. And although these signs were not what he expected, and certainly not what he wanted, miraculously, John will soon learn, as we all are still learning, that these signs were all he truly needed.

And you know what I am talking about! The good news is: Jesus the Messiah of the world has come to this earth as the light of the world to save us all from Satan’s power, and there are signs all around us that prove it!

The blind receive their sight—you know people who are physically blind, yet they can see God more distinctly, see hope more clearly, and see love more purely than anyone with 20/20 vision.

The lame walk—you know people in wheelchairs who are more whole, more together, more able, and more gifted than some world-class professional athletes.

Lepers are cleansed—you know people who have been demeaned, degraded and dehumanized, yet they have more of a sense of belonging, of distinction, of purpose, of eminence, than royalty.

The deaf hear—you know some hearing impaired who are more attentive, more alert and more keenly aware of this miraculous gift we call Christmas than folks who can hear a pin drop.

The dead are raised—you know people who on their deathbeds were more conscious, more hopeful and more alive than some couples on their wedding day.

And the poor have good news brought to them—And we all know folks who do not have a dime to their name, yet they are richer, more satisfied and better-off than some of the wealthiest people we know.

And there was once an old preacher named John sitting in a cold, dark Roman prison cell, about to lose his head, who, although he did not always realize it, was more liberated, more unfettered and unshackled, and more free than any new born baby!

And then there are the small signs of Christmas that are all around us—in a friend’s or a spouse’s undeserved forgiveness; in the innocent love of a child; in a warm embrace; in a friend’s thoughtful visit, encouragement, empathy and love; in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of a cup.

And these signs can also be seen through serving a hot meal to a stranger; giving a coat or providing shelter to the cold and undeserving; visiting the lonely in a nursing home; and wrapping gifts for families you have and will never meet.

Yes, on the surface, John the Baptist may have been disappointed when Messiah did not come quite as he preached, when Christmas did not come with a fire to conquer and destroy his enemies. But I believe John began to learn, as we are all still learning today, that fire can take many forms. Yes, some of the forms are destructive and dominating in their effects.  But other forms are warm, comforting, purifying, light-producing and life-giving. These are the forms of fire which our Messiah, which Christmas takes in our world.

And because of this, on this Third Sunday of Advent, on this dark, cold day of December, we light another candle, and we are still learning that light does not disappoint us.

Ten Things to Put Back in Christmas

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Every year, we hear it: “Put Christ back in Christmas!” “Keep Christ in Christmas!”

Well, truth be told, there are many things Christians need to put back in Christmas. To show the world the true meaning of Christmas, this morning’s sermon is to encourage you to keep doing what I have witnessed you doing since I met you sixteen years ago.

Here are ten things I encourage you to continue teaching others to put back in Christmas:

  1. Put the infant Jesus back in Christmas.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Luke 1:31).

The clamoring to put Christ back in Christmas usually has nothing to do with the infant Jesus. The good news of Christmas is that we worship and serve a God, who for our weakness, became weak; for our vulnerability, became vulnerable; for our salvation, became an infant. God came as a new-born baby and became dependent on humans to teach humans to become humbly dependent on God instead of in our own accomplishments.

As a church, keep the infant Jesus in Christmas by always depending on God as infants are dependent on their parents. When you gather for worship and communion each Sunday, always approach this table not because you are strong; but because you are weak. Come, not because you have a lot faith, but because you have some doubt. Come not because you are a saint in need of affirmation, but because you are a sinner in need of grace. Come, not because you are invincible and immortal, but because you are vulnerable and mortal.

  1. Put the manger back in Christmas.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

 In our minds, the Nativity is majestic. It is glorious. There is no crying, no fussing, no restlessness, no dirty diapers, no spit up, no anxiety, no fear. Our Nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene. But the truth is that was not the reality of Christmas. Christmas reality was not beautiful, and it was far from perfect.

We don’t sing AWAY in a Manger for nothing as Jesus was born far, far away from home among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.

So, as a church, keep the manger in Christmas by always being authentic, real people living in the real world, concentrating on real problems, comforting real pain, confronting real evil. The last thing this fragmented world needs are more fake, sanctimonious, pretentious hypocrites.

  1. Put Quirinius, the governor of Syria, back in Christmas.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2).

When God chose to give God’s self to the world revealing God’s love for the world, God chose to enter into a part of the world where Islamophopic Christians have advocated dropping a nuclear bomb to wipe it off the map. Middle-eastern people are not “rag-heads,” “diaper-heads” or “sand-rats.” They are human beings created in the image of God. They are God’s beloved. When Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” he was talking specifically about their world.

As a church, keep the governor of Syria in Christmas by never dehumanizing or denigrating any person based on race, religion, or ethnicity and by courageously correcting people who do. Islamic extremists who shoot up a crowded concert hall do not speak for all Muslims anymore than Christian fundamentalists who shoot up a Planned Parenthood clinic or a black church speak for all Christians.

  1. Put the shepherds back in Christmas.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:8).

Like the Nativity, there is 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. However, the reality is that shepherding was a most despised occupation. New Testament Scholar Alan Culpepper writes: “In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” They were considered to be among the outcasts of society.

Fred Craddock wrote that the shepherds belong to the Christmas story “not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David, but because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame.”

As a church, keep the shepherds in Christmas by always welcoming and including those who our society marginalizes.

  1. Put Mary back in Christmas.

All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child (Luke 2:3-5).

Christians need to remember that it is ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. New Testament and biblical archaeology professor, James Strange, notes: “It was a fairly grueling trip…most traveled 20 miles a day… and the trip was very much uphill and downhill.”

He continues: “Mary, as pregnant as she was, would have endured freezing temperatures, the constant threat of outlaws on the trade route, and harsh terrain. [And] when Mary finally reached Bethlehem, she and Joseph were turned away.”

As a church, we need to keep Mary in Christmas by always keeping risk in Christmas, by keeping adventure, by keeping sacrifice and by keeping selflessness in Christmas. Because the truth is, when the church becomes nothing more than a snug, safe, and static sanctuary, it ceases being the church.

  1. Put Joseph back in Christmas.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

Because he was a righteous man, Joseph promised: “I will not harm her, ridicule her, expose her, shame her, or do or say anything that will demean her dignity, worth or personhood. I will protect her.”

If your righteousness, your theology, your faith, causes you to abuse, disgrace, harm or degrade another, you are doing it wrong. As Craddock once said, “If the Bible causes you to hate anyone, you are reading it wrong.”

As a church, keep Joseph in Christmas by always doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  1. Put King Herod back in Christmas.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3).

Christians need to remember that the birth of Jesus was a threat to the political powers-that-be, so much so that his life was immediately threatened by the reigning king.

As a church, keep King Herod in Christmas by always opposing systems of injustice, political policies that disenfranchise minorities; or laws that make it more difficult for the poor to vote, obtain healthcare or receive a quality education, and any legislation that does not enable liberty and justice for all.

  1. Put the Wise Men from the East back in Christmas.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

This part of the Christmas story has always bothered me. I could never figure how that little baby was going to be able to play with his Christmas presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh!

As the church, keep these foreign Wise Men in Christmas by always being receptive of new gifts, new ideas, new ways of doing things, even if they come from folks who did not grow up around here. Always remember the seven last words of a dying church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”

  1. Put the refugees back in Christmas.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:13b-15).

Christians need to remember that Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus fled for their lives into Egypt where they lived in exile for years. Who knows what it must have been like for them to be forced out of their home under the threat of death and travel across nations through unwelcome terrain? Who know how they must have felt to be so unprotected, unwanted and helpless?

Syrian refugees know.

A friend of mine recently moved to a new church. He delivered his first sermon the Sunday before Thanksgiving. This was during the time many state governors were giving executive orders denying sanctuary for Syrian refugees. During his sermon he shared some interesting statistics and pointed out that if every church in America would adopt just one Syrian refugee, there would be no refugee crisis. The next day, he said that a contingent showed up at his office.

A contingent. Every church has them. There are positive contingents and there are negative contingents. The problem is that the negative ones are often more vocal.

“Pastor, we are here to tell you that your sermon yesterday about the refugees was out of bounds!”

As a church, keep the refugees in Christmas by regularly sending a different kind of contingent into your pastor’s study to encourage him or her saying:

“Pastor, we want you to keep boldly preaching the good news of Jesus without boundaries, because if you ever begin to let a few negative contingents influence you to start watering down the gospel, if you give in and begin preaching a love with restrictions, a hope with constraints, and a grace with limitations, you will no longer be preaching the good news!”

  1. Put the angels back in Christmas.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

New Testament professor 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 of Jesus 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.

As a church, keep the angels in Christmas by always being a community of grace heralding good news of great joy for all the people, and all means all.

Let us pray together.

O God, thank you for Christmas. Now help us share Christmas by being Christmas, all of Christmas, for all of the world.

 

Commissioning and Benediction 

Go now and keep being the church and sharing the good news of Christmas in this community and in our world.

Go now into the world and keep humbly depending on God as infants depend on their parents.

Go into the world and keep keeping it real.

Go and keep preaching that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Go and keep doing justice on the behalf of the poor and marginalized.

Go and keep taking risks, serving others selflessly and sacrificially.

Go and keep doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Go and keep accepting gifts from others, keep learning from others, even from outsiders.

Go and keep speaking truth to power, even if it gets you into trouble.

Go and keep preaching a love without restrictions, even if a contingent says you are out of bounds.

Go and keep heralding the good news of great joy for all the people. All the people. And all means all.

And always go in the name of the Savior who was born in the City of David who is Christ the Lord.