There Is Always Room for Christmas

no room

It was a dark time in a dark world. Mary and Joseph were on the road to pay taxes to a puppet king in an occupied territory. 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 is no room. There is no place. There is no way. There is no hope.

But, as God had proved over and over throughout history, from the covenant of Abraham through the great Exodus to the prophets in exile, there is nothing that can separate the world from God’s love. For God, once again, showed up! In spite of every demonic power that tried to thwart God’s coming, God came.

And the good news of Christmas is 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. 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.

During this particular play, 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.”

Through Christ, God came to Mary and Joseph and God comes to us 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, and emphatically says, “Oh, yes there is!”

The good news of Christmas is that God comes to us in all of our circumstances with 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 and still comes into our muck of pain and sickness and offers comfort and healing.

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

The world says that there is no room, that things are not going to get any better. The world says there is no way, that the good old days are long gone. The world says that there is no place where evil will not get the best of you. The world says there is no hope because in the end, everyone dies.

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

The child cries in the night as God says: “Although you cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are dawning, even if you are about to draw your last breath!”

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.”

Then 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: “There is no way this country will ever come together. Racism will never end. Hate will never cease. Railroad tracks will always divide. There is no room for compromise. There is no place for reconciliation. There is no hope for unity.”

Then 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 Christmas is although the world often seems dark, the light of God will not be diminished.

Although politics divide us, the good news that unites us will not suppressed.

Although the sound of violence is deafening, the Word of God will not be silenced.

Although the powerful will always try to oppress the weak, the justice of God will not be defeated.

Although tyrants rule with fear, the prince of peace will not be conquered.

Although hate seems to have its way, love will not die.

Although sin seems to get the best of us, grace will not fail.

Although despair seems to overwhelm, hope will not fade.

Although death seems to be final, the kingdom of God will reign forever and ever.

Hallelujah! Merry Christmas!

Disappointment at Christmas

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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.

Good News of Christmas

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Sermon preached at Mt. Moriah Community Church’s Christmas Concert, Farmville, December 23, 2015

Luke 2:1-7 NRSV

No place. No room.

Adam and Eve were in the garden trying to cover up their sins. Ashamed of what they had done, ashamed of who they had become, they saw no way out. So they went into hiding. But what they did not know was that even if they used all of the fig leaves in the garden, there was no place on earth they could hide from God.

As the sun was about to set on them, literally and figuratively, they heard a rustling in the trees, footsteps in the grass, for God showed up! And although they could not go back to the good old days and undo their mistakes, God surprised them by using God’s own hands, making garments of skin and clothing them with grace.

Consumed with hate, Cain kills his brother Abel. He is exiled from the garden into the land of Nod. But just when he thought his new place would be God-forsaken, God forgotten, God-cursed, God showed up and put a mark of protection, a mark of mercy on Cain which would stay on him for the rest of his life.

Abraham and Sarah were enjoying retirement. Their old age, frail bodies and declining health told them that there was no way they could ever be used by God. They were in no place to ever make a difference. But just when they thought they could just sit back, watch the Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy and just turn in, God showed up with a purpose that was so miraculous, it caused them to laugh out loud!

Moses was a fugitive on the run. Running from his sins. Running from himself. Running from God. Then, just when he thought he was in a place where he had run away from it all, a bush suddenly bursts into flames. God showed up. God showed up saying, “I’m sending you Moses, yes, you Moses, a sinner with a speech impediment and a thousand other excuses, I am anointing you to stand up to the Pharaoh to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

Soon after the children Israel were set free from slavery, they they hit a dead end with Moses in the wilderness. Pharaoh’s army was advancing behind them and the Red Sea stood before him. There was no way to escape. No place to go. Then, when they had all but given up, complaining to Moses that they would have been better off dead back in Egypt, at the very moment they lost all faith and all hope, God showed up. God showed up and made a way when there was no way. God showed up and brought hope in the midst of despair, faith in the midst of doubt, victory in the midst of defeat and life in the midst of certain death.

It was a dangerous time in a dangerous world. Mary, who was with child, and her betrothed husband Joseph, were on the road to pay taxes to a puppet king in an occupied territory. 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.

But this was not the first time God heard these words. There is no room. There is no place. There is no way. There is no hope.

So, as God had proved over and over throughout history that there is nothing in all of creation that can separate the world from God’s love, God, once again, showed up! In spite of every demonic power that tried to thwart God’s coming, God came.

And the good news of Christmas is 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.

Last Sunday I shared the story about a certain Christmas play that a local church was presenting. You know the kind. I used to be in one every year when I was growing up. Three boys playing shepherds are bare-footed, wearing bath robes with towels wrapped around their heads and carrying long sticks. 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 an 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 mouth of babes.”

The truth is that when God wanted to reveal God’s love for the world, God came to us through the person of Jesus born in Bethlehem to meet us in all of our circumstances.

Through Christ, God came Adam and Eve and God and comes to meet us hiding in our circumstance of sin and shame and offer us forgiveness.

Through Christ, God came to Cane and God comes to meet us in our circumstance of living in a hate-filled, seemingly God-forsaken and God-cursed world and offers us mercy.

Through Christ, God came to Abraham and Sarah and God comes to us to meet us in the circumstance of our old age, tired bodies and declining health and offers us new life.

Through Christ, God came to Moses and God comes to meet us in the circumstance of our wandering and our running and offers us a divine purpose.

Through Christ, God came to the children of Israel and God comes to us in our circumstances of dead ends and utter despair and offers us a new way and a new hope.

Through Christ, God came to Mary and Joseph and God comes to us 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 and says, “Oh, yes there is!”

The good news of Christmas 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 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 and all of our muck.

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

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of sickness and brings healing.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of loneliness and shares divine presence.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of fear and gives peace.

The world says that there is no room, that things are not going to get any better. The world says there is no way, that the good old days are long gone. The world says that there is no place where evil will not get the best of you. The world says there is no hope because in the end, everyone dies.

Then a young woman named Mary goes into labor as God says: “I am always working all things together for the good!” A baby cries in the darkness as God says: “The best days of life are always before you.” The child cries in the night as God says: “Although you cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are always coming, even if you are about to draw your last breath!”

The world says: “There is no room. You will never amount to anything. You are a loser. You are insignificant. You are worthless. You are not a good person.”

The world says: “There is no way. No matter how hard you try, sin always has a way of getting the best of you. You’ve made too many mistakes.”

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

The world says: “There is no hope. You and this world would be better off if you were dead. For you, there is no room, no way, no place, no hope.”

Then 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: “There is no way the churches in this town will ever work together. Racism will never end. Bigotry will never cease. The railroad tracks will always divide. There is no room for compromise. There is no place for reconciliation. There is no hope for unity.”

Then 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: white and black, red and brown, Aramaic-speaking and foreign-speaking, gay and straight, rich and poor, documented and undocumented, citizen and refugee. 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 Christmas is although the world often seems dark, the light of God will not be diminished.

The good news of Christmas is although racism and bigotry will try to divide us, the good news that unites us will not whitewashed.

Although the sounds of guns and violence are deafening, the Word of God will not be silenced.

Although the rich will always try to rob the poor, the justice of God will not be defeated.

Although the powerful rule with fear, the prince of peace will not be conquered.

Although hate seems to have its way, love will not lose.

Although sin seems to get the best of us, grace will not fail.

Although despair seems to overwhelm, hope will not fade.

Although death seems to be final, the kingdom of God will reign forever and ever.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Merry Christmas.

Finding Christmas

Amazing Grace

Here we are. It’s the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Time is running out. Christmas is only a few days away. Have you been looking for it? Have you been searching for it? Have you been yearning for it?

If so, have you been looking in the right places?

No, not in the shopping mall; not under the tree in the living room; not hanging in a stocking on the fireplace; not in the kitchen or in the dining room; not at the party; and, as fun as it was to try, not even under the mistletoe. Have you been looking for Christmas in the only place that Christmas can be found? Have you been looking for Christmas out in the wilderness, far from the lights of downtown?

Have you heard and accepted the God’s honest truth, even if that truth is difficult to swallow? Have you been able to openly and truthfully say: “The choices I have made on my own have not brought me fulfillment. My freedom, my material wealth, my high tech gadgets, a nice home, a nice car, a seven-day vacation, even a wife, two kids and a dog are not enough. I need something more! The truth is: I am standing the middle of the wilderness, and I am utterly lost!”

Have you heard and accepted the truth that none of us are who we ought to be. I’m not alright. You’re not alright. None of God’s children are alright. Each of us stands in desperate need of a savior. More than anything else, we need a savior to search us and know our hearts, to test us and know our thoughts, to see the wicked ways in us and then lead us into the way everlasting.

Lost in the wilderness of life, have we asked God to take an ax and cut us down, or kindle a fire to purge us, so we can be reborn, so we can start over afresh and anew, so we can be cleansed and changed and completely transformed forever?

I believe this is exactly where we find Mary in this morning’s gospel lesson. In one of most beautiful songs in the entire Bible, Mary’s humility and recognition of need is clearly evident. “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.”

New Testament Scholar Alan Culpepper has noted: Mary’s “confession [of] ‘Savior’ expresses the desperate need of the lowly, the poor, the oppressed, and the hungry.” Those who have it all—freedom, family, a lot of stuff—those who Culpepper says have “power and means, privilege and position, have no need sufficient to lead them to voice such a term that is itself a plea for help.” Savior.

To confess that God is our Savior means that when we discover our lostness in middle of the wilderness, we do not look to some other power for salvation.” When we confess God as savior we are making the announcement that “neither technology nor social progress, neither education nor legislated reforms will deliver us…from [our] meaningless lives.” The only one who can save us is the God revealed through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The first words from the one chosen to be mother of the Messiah’s lips are an acknowledgment that she is but a poor soul lost in the wilderness standing in desperate need of a savior. And the good news is: this is all that Mary does.

Luke does not give us one clue in his narrative or any indication to why she was chosen or what her attributes might be. Luke tells us far more about Zechariah and Elizabeth than he tells us about Mary. All we are told about Mary that warrants this blessing is the acknowledgment that she is a lowly servant in need of a savior. Mary has done nothing more.

Mary continues: “Surely all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Notice who is doing all of the acting: “He has shown strength with his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the powerful from their thrones; He has lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and He sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”

God is doing it all. God is doing all the acting. The only thing that Mary does is acknowledge her need for a savior. God does the rest.

This is good news of the gospel. In our looking and searching and yearning and seeking, we don’t find Christmas, Christmas finds us. When we go to the wilderness, acknowledge our need for salvation, hear the truth that we need to change, ask God to cut and prune and burn, allow God to have God’s way with us, Christmas comes to us.

This week, I read about a certain Christmas play that a local church was presenting. You know the kind. I used to be in one every year when I was growing up. Three boys playing shepherds are bare-footed, wearing bath robes with towels wrapped around their heads and carrying long sticks. 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 an 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 mouth of babes.”

The truth is that when God wanted to reveal God’s love for the world, God came to us through the person of Jesus born in Bethlehem to meet us in all of our circumstances.

Through Christ, God came to us and still comes into the wilderness to meet us in the circumstance of our lostness and offers us salvation.

Through Christ, God came to us and still comes to us to meet us in the circumstance of our weakness and offers us strength.

Through Christ, God came to us and still comes to us to meet us in the circumstance of our guilt and offers us forgiveness.

When we acknowledge where we are and who we are and what we need, God comes to us through Christ and finds us in all of our circumstances and offers us the assurance that there is no circumstance on earth or in heaven which 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 despair and gives us hope.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of sickness and brings us healing.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of loneliness and shares divine presence.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of fear and gives us peace.

Nancy Smith, a member of this church, with no family in this area, has spent most of the last two months alone in the hospital. She suffered a heart attack which has exasperated her COPD. This week, short of breath, she said to me, “Although I get very afraid at times, I know I am going to be alright, because God is with me.”

Nancy was saying: “No matter my circumstance, no matter how muddy my life becomes, everything is going to be alright.” Nancy was saying: “I will be victorious because the creator of all that is, loves me so much that he came into and still comes into my worst circumstances and into my deepest mud and finds me.”

I believe one of the most perverted things about the church today is that it is full of people who believe that they are the ones who have found Christmas. They have everything figured out. They have all of the answers. They no longer see through a glass darkly. Thus, they are the first to judge others, the first to point out the sins of others. They believe they have somehow gotten themselves good enough, wise enough, clean enough, and straight enough to find Christmas. They boast: “I’ve found Jesus!” “I’ve got Jesus! “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart!”

Which begs the question: “What made them ever think Jesus was the one who was lost, the one who needs to be accepted?”

The good news of Christmas is that it is Jesus who wants to find us, accept us, get a hold of us, and transform us. Jesus does not want us to take him into our hearts. Jesus wants to take us into his heart. Jesus wants us to know his heart, feel his heart, share his heart.

Jesus wants us to feel his heart that beats not for those who casually have him all figured out, but beats for those who stand in awe of his mystery from generation to generation.

Jesus wants us to feel his heart beating not for the proud and their accomplishments who will be scattered, not for the powerful and their influence who will be brought down, and not for the rich and their greed who will be sent away empty.

Jesus wants us to feel a heart beating for the lowly who will be lifted, feel a heart bleeding for the hungry who will be filled with good things, feel a heart pulsating for the afraid who will be given a peace beyond their understanding, feel a heart pounding for the lost who will be found.

Jesus wants us to experience a heart that is filled with a love so unconditional and a grace so free that it changes our hearts and compels us to share that love and grace with all people.

Here we are. It’s the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Time is running out. The good news is that we can stop looking. We can stop searching. We can stop yearning, and we can stop seeking. All we have to do is stand in our muddy wilderness and acknowledge our need of the Savior, confess that we are the ones who are lost, we are the ones who need to be accepted. And no matter our circumstance, nor the depth of our mud, the hope, the peace, the joy and the love of Christmas will surely find us.

Christmas will find us and change us, so, together, we can change the world.

Looking for Christmas in the Wilderness

Maundy Thursday

Luke 3:7-18 NRSV

United Methodist pastor and  preacher William Willimon once said that he often wonders why people come to church to hear a sermon. He said that he, like most preachers, believe you come here Sunday after Sunday to be comforted. You have had hard, busy weeks. You have been under a lot of stress lately. Your children are not doing as well as you would like. Business is slow. Times are tight. You are having a difficult time taking care of your aging parents. And you have your own health worries. Your marriage is not quite like it used to be. You are still dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one. And you are still struggling with forgiving that friend who let you down and loving a neighbor who betrayed you. So you get in your car every Sunday and drive to this place to sit in a pew to get a little comfort. You come to get stroked and soothed, pampered and pacified.

So I, along with hundreds of other moderate, educated, mainline preachers in pretty, downtown pulpits, seek to give you a dose of what we think you need and want each and every Sunday. We seek give you a little bit of psychology. We metaphorically pat you on the back from our pulpits on Sunday mornings assuring you that everything is going to be alright. We seek to give you a little bit of Jesus-loves-me-and-Jesus-loves-you-so-I’m O.K.-you’re O.K.-all-God’s-children-are-O.K. theology.  Worship, then, is a little feel-good-pick-me-up to help us recover from last week and to help us get through the upcoming week, some chicken soup for the soul.

Then, we encounter a text like this morning’s gospel lesson. And we read the account of a preacher who is a far cry a moderate, educated, mainline preacher in a pretty, downtown pulpit. His name is John the Baptist.  He’s a harsh man with a harsh voice crying out from the boondocks far from the lights of downtown.

No one ever called John the Baptist “moderate.” And no one ever called him “pretty.” And there was certainly nothing comforting about his message of hell, fire, brimstone and impending judgment.

John stood in the mud of the Jordan River and preached: “You bunch of poisonous snakes! There’s a bunch of dead stones in this muddy river. God is able to make a family out of these stones. There’s a heap of dry chaff, mixed all up in with the wheat. You know what God’s going to do? God’s going to start a fire to burn off the chaff.  I wash you with water; and if this water is too cold for you… there is one who’s coming right behind me who is going to scorch you with fire!”

“You better get washed. You better get clean! If you’ve treated someone unfairly, go make it right. If you have prejudice in your heart, get rid of it. This may be your last warning. Today is the day. Now is the hour, for the ax, the judge, and the fire are coming!”

Now I think: “Who in the world would want to travel out in the middle of nowhere to hear a sermon like that? Who wants to look at someone who looks like John and hear him say: “I’m not O.K.! You’re not O.K.! None of God’s children are O.K.!” Who wants to hear him say: “The unquenchable fire is coming, so you better get ready!? You better stop being so arrogant and pompous, so selfish and so greedy. Because guess what? Someone’s coming and hell’s coming with him!”

Who wants to listen to a sermon like that? As it turns out, lots of people. Luke says: “multitudes.” And genteel, educated preachers in pretty downtown pulpits everywhere ask: “why?”

It just so happens that people do not necessarily go to church to listen to a sermon to be comforted. People come to church to hear the truth.

Multitudes went to into the boonies because that redneck preacher who looked like he could handle a snake or two named John the Baptist was telling people the truth.

That is why I believe you come to this place Sunday after Sunday. In a world of so much deceit and falsehood, in a world where people will tell you anything you want to hear to make a dollar, in a world where the rich and powerful control the media, you want to hear someone who unashamedly will speak to you honestly and truthfully. You come here out of a deep yearning to hear a word of truth from God because you know deep in your heart that it is only that truth that will set you free.

That is why more people went out to hear John preach in the desert than have ever come here to hear me preach in my pretty downtown church. Multitudes tramped through the briars and dust and went to hear a fire-breathing preacher who stood, not in a beautifully crafted and decorated pulpit, but in the muddy Jordan River, and spoke of axes, judgment and fire. They went to hear the truth. Even though they knew that sometimes, most of the time, the truth hurts; the truth is not an easy thing to swallow. However, they somehow instinctively knew that it was the truth that was going to set them free.

If John was here today, I believe he would tell moderate, mainline, mainstream preachers safe behind our protective pulpits like me sell you short. And maybe he would be right.

For every now and again, even I, slip up and accidentally step on your toes, a lot harder than I ever intend to, implying: “You’re not right. You need a bath. Some part of you needs to be cut off, removed; something in of you needs to be burned away. The racism and sexism, the homophobia and xenophobia, all of the pride and bigotry and hate inside of you needs to be destroyed so we can fulfill the greatest commandment of God and love all of our neighbors, our white neighbors and our black neighbors, our straight neighbors and our LGBTQ neighbors, our Christian neighbors and our Muslim neighbors, our rich neighbors and our poor neighbors, our English-speaking neighbors and our foreign speaking neighbors.”

And do you know what happens when I do this? You are often lined up at the front door to say, “Thanks preacher, I really needed to hear that!” “You really got on top of my feet today! Thanks for being honest.”

You lined up to thank me because you know that before something can be born anew and fresh within you, something old and rotten has to die. You know that before a church can experience rebirth and new growth, the archaic and the stagnant need to pass away. And you know that before we can truly be the church, we have to get out of the comfort and the security of the sanctuary, and go to the places God is leading us, even the dark, dangerous and dreadful places.

That is why people came to hear John preach. Because if you really listen to him you will hear him make two points in his sermon: “God is coming!” and “You can change!”

From his prolific sermon illustrations, the fire, the ax, and chaff, we know that what John was preaching was the death of something old and the birth of something new. You can get clean. You can be purified. You can be transformed and be washed white as snow!

This is why the multitudes traveled out into the boonies to hear John preach! Because when John preached with brutal honesty, when John told the people what they needed to change, what they needed to prune, cut off and burn up, the wilderness began to look something like the Garden of Eden. The muddy Jordan became the River of Life. Out of the dry dust, a flower began to bloom.

To put me through seminary, Lori worked as a social worker at a transitional apartment building for homeless families on the west side of Louisville Kentucky. Louisville’s west side was the oldest part and the ugliest part of the city. Century old houses which were once the homes of Louisville’s middle to upper class were now run down. Many condemned. Windows boarded up. Others were crack houses. Old, one-time majestic apartment buildings were now considered slums. Litter covered the sidewalks and filled the alleyways. It was the ghetto.

One Saturday I took the youth group from our church to do some cleaning and painting in the apartment building where Lori worked. As soon as we arrived, it began to snow. About six inches fell while we worked inside. When we walked outside to get into the van to drive back to the church, we marveled at the transformation. A gentle white blanket covered the ghetto and completely transformed it into some place wonderful!

Your sins, the psalmist promised, shall be whiter than snow! This was the message of John the Baptist. People flocked to hear John, and I believe come to worship every Sunday so they can hear the truth: that none of us are who we ought to be.

We come here to ask God to hold up a mirror in front of us so we can see clearly all of our shortcomings. We ask him to search us and know our hearts; test us and know our thoughts, see if there is any wicked way in us, and lead us the way everlasting. And chastened, we come to drop to our knees and ask God to take an ax and cut us down, or kindle a fire and purge us, so we can be reborn, so we can be cleansed and changed, so we can then change the world. John the Baptist promises the possibility of such a transformation.

Get ready. God is coming. This was John’s message. Let us hear this message today. Because there is not anyone here who is beyond the reach of a gracious God who comes to us, so that we might come to him.

John the Baptist preached that. And he is still preaching that. You can’t get to Christmas without first meeting him in the wilderness. Multitudes have. By God’s grace, so will we.[i]

[i] Inspired and adapted from a sermon entitled Here Comes the Judge by William Willimon.

We Need a Little Christmas

we-need-a-little-christmas

With the hate that fills our wasteland of a world today, oh how we need 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, that sometimes the truth is not an easy thing to swallow. However, they instinctively knew that it was this truth that was going to set them free. If we listen to him, we will hear him make two points in his sermon: “God is coming!” and “You must change!”

John preached something like: “You are not right. Some part of you needs to be cut off, removed; something inside of you needs to be burned away. The racism and sexism, the homophobia and xenophobia, all of the pride, bigotry and hate inside of you needs to be destroyed, so we can fulfill the greatest commandment of God and love all of our neighbors: our white neighbors and our black neighbors; our straight neighbors and our LGBTQ neighbors; our Christian neighbors and our Muslim neighbors; our rich neighbors and our poor neighbors; our English-speaking neighbors and our foreign-speaking neighbors; our abled-bodied neighbors and our disabled neighbors.”

From his prolific sermon illustrations, “the fire, the ax, and chaff,” we know that what John was preaching was the death of something old and the birth of something new. John was preaching that before something can be born anew and fresh within us, something old and rotten has to die; before we can experience rebirth and new growth, the archaic and the stagnant need to pass away.

And when John preached with this brutal honesty, when John told the people what they needed to change, what they needed to cut off and burn up, the wilderness began to look something like the Garden of Eden. The muddy Jordan became the River of Life. Out of the dry dust, a flower began to bloom. The wasteland began to look a little like Christmas.

chrismtas charlie brown