a sermon on Psalm 111 for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
preached on January 29, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Why do we come here? What brings us together every Sunday? Plenty of people spend their Sunday mornings in bed, enjoying a quiet and slow start to the day, with a cup of coffee and the voluminous Sunday Times, embodying the truest sense of sabbath rest in these very busy times.

Yet we gather together here instead, for some reason forgoing a restful morning on the one potentially restful day of the week for many of us, spending an hour singing sometimes strange hymns and listening to someone go on and on about a two-thousand-year-old book.

This is very strange to many people in these days. It used to be when you moved to a new place you sought out a doctor, a barber or hairdresser, and a church, but now church is optional, and coming together is pretty rare.

So for many in our world, the psalm this morning seems especially confounding. It talks about coming together to give thanks to God. Now thanksgiving is an understandable thing, but in our society it belongs on the fourth Thursday in November – the rest of the year, you’d think that everything that we have is completely and totally of our own doing. And the “together” part – giving thanks “in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation,” as the psalmist puts it – this doesn’t make sense at all. In this day and age, thanksgiving is our own private matter, something that belongs to me and me alone, maybe with a family role sometimes, but never discussed in public. As usual, though, the psalmist insists that the way of the masses is not the way of the people of God. For the people of God, thanksgiving is an everyday task, one that is at its best when others can join us along the way, when we do it together.

There’s more that’s unusual about this way of life, though. The psalmist insists that God is at hand in everything, not just in the thanksgiving of the congregation of the people. According to the psalmist, God is present and at work in creation, doing majestic and glorious deeds that shine from age to age. God’s mercy and compassion extend to all people, not just in abstract ways but in bringing real justice and peace and in providing for those who are in need. God’s presence and life extend beyond every imaginable boundary, and God’s power overcomes every human limit to show God’s love for God’s people. The God of this psalm is trustworthy, honest, and true, bringing a new way of life into the world and sealing God’s love forever and ever.

This incredible way of God that the psalmist describes is so different from our human ways, not just on Sunday morning but each and every day. For the psalmist, good things are not our own doing but are solely of God’s doing. The beauty and wonder of creation – even those things created by human hands – is from God alone. Mercy, compassion, justice, peace, and love are not optional things in this way of life, to be done when they are convenient or to our advantage, but rather are the way that God lives – and so should be the way that we live, too.

As usual, in offering praise to God, the psalmist helps us to see a little clearer picture of the way of life that God intends for us and our world. Even though the psalmist speaks for himself in these words, the life of praise and newness he describes is only possible “in the congregation of the upright” – in the times when we come together.

This seems like a fitting thing for us today as we prepare to spend some time together this afternoon talking about the life of our congregation. When we gather, we come together not just because we usually like each other as people but because we have a special purpose for our life together, because here we begin our faithful response to God in praise and thanksgiving and here we seek to embody God’s new way of life in our world. When we gather, we are reminded that our life together is not centered in some building constructed by human hands but in the grace of God who gathers us and transforms us more and more into the people God is calling us to be. When we gather, we find that the life we share together here is important not so much because of the history that comes before us but because here we are strengthened for the living of our faith in these days and beyond.

The institution of this place is less important than what we accomplish together. As one of my friends put it so well recently,

What matters most to me about church is that there is an opportunity for people to gather – in some way, shape, and form – around the Jesus that can known through the Gospels and in the company of the Spirit that can be known by who-knows-how.

So as we go into this time of business this afternoon, as we consider some of the earthly things that we must think about as we share this life in this place, as we discuss the sale of the manse that has served as the home of your pastor for the last fifteen years, I hope and pray that these earthly, administrative things will not overwhelm what is really important: that we come together to live the life of praise and thanksgiving that the psalmist describes, that we come together to share hope and love for all people, that we come together to witness to justice and peace in our common life and our individual lives, that we come together to share our joys and our sorrows along the journey, and that we come together to trust God, who gives us everything we need to make it through the day so that together we might share in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

So may we praise the Lord together and give thanks to God with our whole hearts each and every day as we journey together into the new life and light that has already come into our midst through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.


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Timing Is Everything

a sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and Mark 1:14-20
preached on January 22, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Timing is everything. If Jesus had walked by the sea on some other day – or even just an hour or a few minutes earlier! – he may not have encountered Simon and Andrew there. Sure, he may have met some other fishermen at work there, but I doubt they would have been as receptive to what Jesus had to say to them.

Timing was the biggest part of Jesus’ message, after all – he was making his way around Galilee, following in the footsteps of John the Baptist, proclaiming, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (CEB)

Jesus and John the Baptist were not alone in suggesting that this was a unique time – we know from the history of that era in other sources beyond the Bible that there were plenty of people talking like this. It was a time of uncertainty and change and transition, with plenty of hope among those who wanted things to be different and much at stake for those who already had the power and were now threatened by the chance of something new. John the Baptist had already been put in jail along with countless other troublemakers, and surely anyone who followed after him risked a similar fate at the hands of the powerful leaders. Yet here in this time Jesus appears, wandering the Galilean countryside, suggesting that a change in the heart would bring real change to all of life, saying that this was the time for things to be different.

So it must have been the right time for Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus stopped as he made his way along the coast of the Sea of Galilee. As Simon and Andrew were tossing their nets into the lake, Jesus invited them to join him and start fishing for people. Then a little further along, Jesus called out to James and John as they were mending the nets on their father’s boat. For some reason, all four of these men dropped what they were doing to join Jesus on his way.

The gospel of Mark says absolutely nothing about why they welcomed Jesus’ call. Maybe they had just been so unsuccessful at fishing that they wanted to try something new, to “fish for people,” as Jesus suggested. Maybe they were former followers of John the Baptist or some other teacher who had worked in their region before. Maybe they were religious people who had been looking for a new teacher with a new message. Maybe there was something special and compelling about this strange man who spoke to them with such authority and presence. Maybe they were just crazy enough to try something new. Or maybe it was just the perfect time for some combination of these or other things. Whatever the reason or reasons, these four fishermen responded to Jesus’ call. They dropped their nets, leaving their boats and families and coworkers behind, strangely ready for something new not just in their lives but in and for all the world. The time must have been right.

For some two thousand years, people have been thinking that the time is right – that it is time for God to do something new, time for everything to change, time to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. For two thousand years, people have been expecting something new to come – but it really hasn’t. Sure, people have been following Jesus all this time, and there have been some changes to things along the way, but the real, dramatic, powerful changes? They sure still seem to be a long way off. Yet Jesus kept saying, “Now is the time!” The apostle Paul said, “The present form of this world is passing away.” From their witness and countless others, we know there is something new yet still ahead – but we don’t know when it is coming. The time is not yet right.

But maybe this is the year… Some people have said that 2012 is the year when it all will come to an end. This is a pretty normal thing, you know – a self-taught biblical scholar named Harold Camping predicted the end of the world twice last year, and other Christians make a regular habit of trying to align current world events with supposed signs in the Bible to determine when the world will end. But this year there’s also the strange threat from another tradition, as the Mayan calendar of the native peoples of Mexico ends later this year. So what if 2012 is the end of the world? Would it make any difference for us? Would we be more likely to drop our nets as Simon and Andrew and James and John did? Would we live like Paul suggests to the Corinthians, with “those who have wives [being] as though they had none” and “those who deal with the world [being] as though they had no dealings with it”?

I think the reality of the call of God is that we are called to a new way of life each and every day, no matter how close or how far we are from the end of things. We are called to work with God to bring the world one day closer to the way that God intends. We are called to prepare ourselves for the time when all things will be made new. And we are called to welcome and enable and bring about change in the world that we have, here and now, in this time and place. So the time is right to live in this way, to follow in the footsteps of Simon, Andrew, James, and John, to walk with Jesus along the way to new life, to trust that there is something more in store for us and our world at a time that we do not yet know.

In this time and this place, I believe that God is calling us in this congregation to a new way of thinking and a new way of living. God is calling us to proclaim within and especially beyond these walls those words of Jesus: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” God is calling us to live the immediate and transformative reality of God’s new life in our world. God is calling us to drop our nets and leave our boats behind so that we can respond to God’s call with openness, honesty, and hope.

So God is calling us in this time to join in these new things – to be about something more than we are now, to leave our heavy nets and leaky boats behind – so that we can have the freedom to see something new, to imagine that our future can be something more than our past, to dream that God might call us to do something more than just gather here on Sunday mornings. This is the time to do this important work, the time to change our hearts and lives, the time to trust God and follow where Jesus leads us, the time to set aside our nets and our boats, our assumptions and our expectations, and go in a new direction, for God has called us and wants and needs us to go wherever God may lead.

It wasn’t easy for the disciples to drop their nets or leave their boats, and it won’t be easy for us to follow in that same way, either. Still, the God of boldness calls us to be a part of something more than what we have been before so that all things might be made new.

May God give us the strength and the courage to know that the time is right and to walk in God’s incredible new life, now and always, until we know God’s glory in all its fullness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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A Dream for Today

a sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20
preached on January 15, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Samuel must have been dreaming. Someone kept calling out to him in the night, saying, “Samuel, Samuel.” He kept waking up, wondering if Eli, the chief priest, needed something from him. When he went in to Eli, though, the old man hadn’t called for him, nor had he heard anything. Samuel must have been dreaming.

Except it kept happening. Just as he was getting back to sleep, Samuel heard the voice again: “Samuel, Samuel.” Again he went in to Eli, and again Eli sent him back to bed. Then it happened again. Just as Samuel started to sleep, he heard that same voice calling out a third time: “Samuel, Samuel.” This time, when Samuel came in to him, Eli realized that something might be going on. Even though he himself was not the greatest leader or most faithful priest, even though his sons had abused their power and position in the temple, even though Eli was old and didn’t see or hear or dream very well anymore, he did realize that God might be up to something with Samuel. So Eli sent Samuel back to bed with a new instruction: “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Now it was no dream. When Samuel heard the voice calling out to him again, he responded as Eli had instructed him. The Lord spoke to Samuel that night and for many years to come. First Samuel heard that God was up to something “that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” Surely that got Samuel’s attention! Samuel’s ears tingled all night long, for God was planning to punish Eli’s house forever, because his sons had blasphemed God and Eli had done nothing about it.

It was a difficult word – worse than a nightmare for Samuel – and the night was long. Samuel did not sleep. In the morning, he didn’t want to tell Eli what God had told him, but when Eli asked him directly, he had no choice but to tell him the whole story. Eli, to his credit, did not harm the messenger, even with such difficult news, though his ears surely tingled a bit, for they both knew that Samuel’s encounter with God that night was no dream.They knew that God’s words would come true.

A night that started out as a dream was the beginning of Samuel’s long and difficult career as a prophet for the people of Israel, where everything he said and did would get the people’s attention even if they wouldn’t really listen, where ears would tingle all the time out of fear and hope for what God would do.

It’s easy to imagine that God’s call to us is just a dream. We even use that language sometimes. We talk about “dreaming” and “visioning” when we try to think ahead about what God is calling us to do. But these words make God’s call seem distant and difficult to make real. We aren’t willing to answer God’s call, thinking, like Samuel, that it must be someone else calling us, and our Elis just keep telling us to go back to bed instead of urging us to listen to what God has to say. We’d rather not imagine that God actually makes our ears tingle these days. Even if we actually hear the call, we often just get overwhelmed, uncertain of what to do with this news because we don’t know how others will respond to us, and we figure that things are just fine as they are.

But God’s call is more than a dream. Samuel could have left it all there in the bed that night, assuming that this strange voice in the night was just a bad dream, but Eli, the one whom God condemned, encouraged him to take it seriously, to trust that this tingle in his ears was really God, to listen to the good and the bad that God would offer him, and even to dream that God would be up to something more than Samuel could ever imagine among his people.

Like Samuel, we have a choice when our ears tingle. We can respond to that tingling out of fear, afraid of what might happen, preferring to dwell in uncertainty, assuming that things will not go well, that the glass is half-empty, that the news will be bad. Or we can let our ears tingle with hope, trusting that God is opening a new way for us even when there seems to be nothing ahead, looking for something beyond our expectations and imaginations when we face a new and different day, showing the world that there is a better and more perfect day still to come.

We need a little of both of these tinglings, pastor Donna Schaper says. “Let one ear tingle with fear,” she suggests, for the reality is that things are not yet perfect. (Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 1, p. 246) There is still much pain and danger and hurt in our world, and God will deal with it just as God dealt with Eli and his sons. And yet we can’t let all our tingling be in our ear of fear. We need to imagine that God can and will do something more, that our dreams might come true, that God might just choose us and work in and through us, that God might just be ready to bring us what we dream about, that our dreaming might be something more than idle nothingness and might actually become real and true for us, here and now.

I know no one who can balance the tingle of fear and the tingle of hope better than Martin Luther King, Jr. He brought our nation and our world a firm dose of reality as he stood up with so many others to protest racism, war, and injustice. And yet he also called us to dream about something new and different, to imagine that our nation and our world might be something better than what it was.

His dream has not yet been realized. The world is difficult, and things are not yet perfect. There is still more work to be done. But his dream matters for us today. Listen to him proclaim that dream once again:

May we join in that dream of freedom and hope for all people as our ears tingle with God’s call in this and every time and place until we are free at last forevermore.

Amen and amen.

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Ordinary and Extraordinary

a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 and Mark 1:4-11
preached on January 8, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

The magi had seen it all before. They had been on these kinds of journeys to other nations when they had seen other stars that indicated the birth of new rulers, so they knew something of what to expect. When they got to Jerusalem, though, things started to look a little different. Even though they had seen the star of the birth of the king of the Jews, the current king could tell them nothing. He had not had a new son recently, and the people around him became very worried when these wise men suggested that there might be some unknown heir to his throne.

But eventually, some of the court advisors sent them on their way to Bethlehem, where some ancient texts suggested a king might be born. There was no palace to be their guiding landmark in this small town, but the star that had begun their journey continued to guide them to the home of a newborn boy in Bethlehem. When they arrived, their familiar routine kicked right in. They kneeled down before the child to pay him homage and offered him their royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was all very ordinary, but something about it was truly extraordinary – somehow these magi from another land knew that this little child whose birth had been missed by almost everyone would be far more important than anyone could ever imagine.

John the Baptist had seen it all before, too. People had been lining up to listen to his call to repentance for quite some time. Throughout his ministry in the wilderness, people were wondering and asking if he was the one that people had been waiting for, and repeatedly he responded that someone else was coming with greater power to do even greater things. John’s days were surely quite repetitive, with crowds gathering by the Jordan River, ready to listen to his message and be baptized in repentance for their sins.

But one day amidst the crowds, Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee made his way into the water to be baptized. John baptized him like everyone else, but then something strange happened. The heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit descended like a dove onto Jesus. Then, a voice followed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the midst of an ordinary day, something extraordinary happened – a faithful, penitent man who had traveled many miles to hear and respond to John’s proclamation received a word far beyond his wildest dreams as he moved into the next phase of his life.

We’ve seen it all before, too. We know about the strange men who came from far away to visit Jesus when he was young, and we know that Jesus began his public ministry in an encounter with John the Baptist. We’re probably more used to the other story of Jesus’ birth in a manger and the visit of the shepherds, and we’re probably more comfortable with other manifestations of divine power that came later in his ministry. So all too often, we set these stories aside, assuming that there is little for us to learn here or that we already have everything we will need from them.

We’re people who have seen it all before. Someone in our culture gets a great idea – then everyone else copies it and exploits it so that we’re all sick and tired of it. Think about American Idol or Survivor or most any successful television show of the past few years! “We’ve seen it all before,” we mutter. The life of faith seems to be on endless repeat, with little need to engage things in a new and different way and no time and space to connect to the community that shapes and remakes us. “I already know everything I need to know – there’s nothing new still out there,” we say. “I can do the rest on my own.” The world seems to be on endless repeat, with nothing new coming into being and nothing true worth exploring. How many times do we drive past the same places day after day, never noticing the new things around us? How often do we see only the people we have always seen before when we look around our neighborhood? How long will it take for us to notice that things are different, that the world is not what it once was?

The Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today remind us that we must be open to seeing things anew. We cannot simply expect to make it today with only what we have seen and experienced before. We need the wisdom of this time and this moment to flourish, the vision of a new time and place to help us see the fullness of things here and now. Amazingly, these stories tell us that we don’t really have to look that hard to find what is new. The new things here lie not in the revolutionary moments but in the ordinary ones. The extraordinary is seen here in the ordinary.

In our life together in this congregation, there is much new that lies ahead for us in the coming year. We are finally putting the uncertainty of litigation behind us, and in the coming months we will complete the sale of the manse, the purchase of an apartment, and the construction of an office here at the church. But even this is not everything that lies ahead for us. These short-term changes are only a glimpse of the bigger things that can shift in our life together in the coming years. As our world and our city and our neighborhood changes, we must keep our eyes open to discover and participate in the bigger vision that God is opening before us in these days. We can start to glimpse a new and different way of life together that embraces the best of who we are and remains sustainable for the resources we have in these days. And we can hone our eyes and ears and all our senses to watch for the ordinary to suddenly become extraordinary – not by anything that we do but by the wonder and power of God at work in our midst.

This way of life is not easy. We don’t naturally see the extraordinary in the ordinary of our world, but today even as we worship we have a chance to practice this way of seeing and being. Today we remember how the common, ordinary waters of baptism touch our heads and become the sign and seal of God’s presence in our midst. And today we gather at this table where a small portion of bread and grape juice mysteriously become the full presence of God in our lives and our world. As we share these incredible moments of God’s presence in our midst, we can practice seeing things differently even as we trust that God can do incredible things and be truly present in the midst of the most routine, mundane things of our lives.

So even when we’ve seen it all before, may the ordinary become extraordinary for us, in our daily lives but especially in this place, for in those moments we might just see God in our midst and have a chance to follow where God is leading us and all the world as all things are made new. Amen.

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That Day

a sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas on Luke 2:15-40
preached on January 1, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

I won’t ever forget that day in the temple. It was a strange time back in those days of Caesar Augustus, back when we all got called to our hometowns for the great census and taxation. I didn’t ever move very far from home, so that day I was making my normal trip up to the temple to offer my prayers and sacrifices, joining with the crowds to fulfill our obligations under the law. We all had our different requests and concerns – some people like me just were making our regular trips as we always did, but there were others who wanted a blessing or sought healing from a priest and still others who came because something important was going on in their lives.

I won’t ever forget this one young couple I saw that day, though. They came to the temple with their very, very young baby boy. It was clear that they were not from around here – they seemed to be poor folk visiting Jerusalem from the countryside, probably among those forced to travel because of the census and tax collection. I could tell that they took advantage of their many days of travel and stopped at the temple while they were here in Jerusalem to dedicate their child to God. They way they talked and acted, he must have been their first, so it was especially important that they set him apart for his life ahead.

Now they weren’t the only young couple in the crowd that day – I saw plenty of families seeking to dedicate their children to God. But this family I remember, not because of their simple country clothing, their very young age, or any special features of their son. I remember them because of what happened afterward on that day.

Now after seeing this young family in the courtyard, I went on about my own business and made my offering and prayers. As I was getting ready to head home, though, there was a bit of a commotion in the courtyard, and these folks were at the center of it. An older man had come to talk with them, and they had handed the baby to him. He lifted the tiny child up in his hands and raised his head to the sky. The man’s eyes lit up, as if he had seen something he had been waiting for for his whole life. I walked over toward them, hoping to get a closer look. Then I heard the man break forth into song:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

It was an incredible sight. This man and this family had never met before, but there was something special going on. There was something special about that baby that I didn’t know or understand, but I have never forgotten that day.

As incredible as that was, there was still more that happened that day in the temple. After this old man – I think people in the temple knew him as Simeon – after he passed the little boy back to his mother, I saw Anna come up to them too. Like everyone who came to the temple regularly, I knew Anna. She was there every time I was there, and she always greeted me by name. She had told me before about how she had made her home there in the temple after her husband had died, about how important she knew it was to spend time in prayer, about how she was looking for something new – maybe even someone new – to come and make a difference among the people. Anna must have seen what that old man was doing that day and wanted a glimpse of her own.

I watched as she too made her way over to the mother and father and little boy. When she got there, her eyes lit up as I had never seen them before. She too got excited and started telling this little boy’s parents that he was going to be someone important for his people, that he would be a part of the redemption of Jerusalem. She too started singing songs of praise like I had never heard her sing before.

I’ve always wondered what might have been going on that day. Why were Simeon and Anna so struck by this little boy? Did those old folks at the temple know something that the rest of us didn’t? Did they think that God was up to something special in that family? What was going on that made them so excited to see this little babe?

Even though I don’t really understand why they did what they did, I still wonder what it would be like if all this were true. What would it mean if the things they said were true? How would our world change if salvation really had become real that day? What would be different for us? How would I be different?

There was something special about that day. For once, I felt like something was starting to change, that the help we so desperately need was coming into the world, that we were taking a step in the right direction for once. So often, people are just going through the motions and doing what they seem to have always done even though we all want it to be different somehow. None of us seem to have the time or space or way to make a difference in the world. But that day, something was right.

I wish I knew what I could do to have more days like that one. I wish I could be like those faithful people at the temple and could see special things going on in the world.I wish that I could believe that a little baby could make a difference. I wish I could do even some easy things to make things different. I haven’t seen it yet, and a lot of people I know have given up on it all, but I for one am still looking.

That day, something special happened – and maybe something special will happen again sometime. I’d sure like to see it for myself – to see a way out of our current mess, to see the world change for the better, to see our salvation come and be real, here and now, for everyone. I’m not expecting it today or tomorrow, but I know it will come.

Whether it be on a day as memorable as that one or as ordinary as this one, I know that I will see it with my own eyes. So I’m ready for it – I’m looking for it. Are you?

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The Meaning of Christmas

a sermon for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14, 16
preached on December 24, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

What is the true meaning of Christmas?

People have offered countless answers to this question over the years. Ask a child, and you might hear something about receiving toys and other gifts. Ask a parent of a child, and you’ll hear about how much more expensive the toys get every year! Ask a corporate executive, and you’ll hear about the importance of the holiday season in cementing the year’s sales and profits. Ask a worker, and you might hear something about the gift of time off to spend with family and friends. There are probably as many different meanings of Christmas among us as there are people in this room.

One of my favorites, though, comes from that insightful character Charlie Brown. In the great and wonderful Charlie Brown Christmas special, Charlie Brown asks his friends about the meaning of Christmas as he struggles to get into the spirit of the season. They give him a lot of different answers, and his dog Snoopy even gets into the act as he wins first prize for the decorations on his doghouse! If that weren’t bad enough, even Charlie Brown’s attempt to find the perfect Christmas tree goes awry, and he ends up with the world’s smallest and scrawniest tree. As his friends berate him for his bad taste in trees and inability to grasp the meaning of Christmas, he ends up wondering out loud, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

In response, his friend Linus takes the stage and begins to tell the story that we heard tonight from the gospel according to Luke. Gradually the mood shifts, and Charlie Brown’s friends finally warm up to his little tree as they all realize that Christmas is about something more than they had expected, about a baby born in a manger in a very different and distant time and place.

But there is more to Christmas than even this. The manger, the angels, and the shepherds are wonderful elements of the story, and they help us begin to understand what was going on when Jesus came into the world. But our reading tonight from the gospel according to John gets even closer to the real meaning of Christmas, I think. While Luke – and also Matthew – give us important details of the birth of Jesus, John focuses on the meaning of Christmas without getting into any of these details at all.

For John, Christmas is a part of something more – a little piece of a much bigger puzzle, a glimpse of God’s larger work in the world, a candle lit in the darkness to make things brighter and clearer. So John’s reflection on the meaning of Christmas starts much earlier – “in the beginning,” as he puts it. The Word – Jesus Christ, the one who comes at Christmas – was with God in the beginning. The Word always had a real and vital part of everything that God had done and was doing and would do, and the Word was an active and present participant in the difficult and wonderful work of creation. This Word brought life and light to all people, and there was no way that darkness would or could overcome it. John the Baptist came and testified to all these things, but still not everyone understood what God was doing in those days. And yet God’s purposes were not thwarted. God became real and human, revealing glory unlike any other glory, showing grace and truth to all the earth, and giving all of us the grace we need for each and every day.

And so this is the real meaning of Christmas to me. That God became human; that God became like us; that God became one of us, walking the earth with us, journeying the twists and turns of life alongside us, knowing the fullness of our humanity. As our opening hymn tonight put it so well:

…he feels for all our sadness,
and he shares in all our gladness.

But God didn’t stop there. Jesus came and transformed our world, bringing light to our greatest darkness, sending justice and peace into every corner of our world, showing us that we cannot fix things ourselves but can and must rely on the powerful grace of our merciful God.

There is little that can measure up to this. Not even the latest and greatest toy received by the most excited child can match the wonder of receiving the very presence of God in human form in Jesus at Christmas. Not even the greatest profits from the sales of the season can compare to the great gift that we receive in Jesus Christ. Not even the best time spent with family and friends can measure up to the power and possibility that comes as God journeys beside us in the human form of Jesus Christ. The best we can do to measure up to this probably comes tonight as we gather at this table, this place where we get the best possible glimpse of this great gift. As we receive this bread and this grape juice, we join with the faithful of every age in anticipation and hope, celebrating God’s presence here and now in this feast even as we look forward to the time when we will know the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus Christ at the great feast of all the ages.

And so this Christmas, may we remember the true meaning of Christmas – the wonder of God becoming human as a little baby, the power of God stepping into our world not as a wealthy and powerful ruler but as a tender child, the justice of God transforming the darkness and pain of our world into the greatest glory we can imagine, and the grace of God journeying with us wherever we go to make us and all things new, once and for all, until Christ comes again.

Glory to God, tonight and always. Amen.

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The Message of the Angels

a sermon on Luke 1:26-56 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
preached on December 18, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Whenever angels appear on the scene, you know that God is up to something. Angel really don’t show up all that much in the Bible – the word “angel” only appears some 104 times in the Old Testament and 99 times in the New Testament – but when angels do appear, they are always bringing or bearing a message, and the message is always more important than the messenger.

In our scripture reading this morning, the messenger came to a young woman named Mary who lived in the hill country of Palestine under Roman rule over two thousand years ago. The message from God was as unusual as the recipient: this young woman was favored above all women and chosen to bear the Son of God, the one who would change things once and for all for the people of Israel and all the world.

Mary was stunned and confused by all this, so she asked the angel how this would happen. She was not naïve and understood that certain things were involved in bearing children, and she knew if this message were true lots of people would be asking lots of questions.

The angel answered her, promising that her pregnancy would come not by a usual human method but by the power of the Most High God. And this wasn’t all that God was up to in these days. Mary’s relative Elizabeth, well past childbearing age and long considered barren, was also expecting a son.

Mary wondered about all this, but somehow she accepted it, whether or not she had a choice, declaring, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

These days, we don’t see all that many angels, and I for one am pretty skeptical when anyone suggests that they have such direct contact with God and God’s message, because that message is usually less about what God is doing and more about what the individual wants to hear.

But the seeming absence of angels in our midst doesn’t mean that God has stopped working in our world or has no message for us anymore. We still find God speaking to us in the words of scripture as the Holy Spirit moves in the community of faith. We still find God speaking to us as we live this message out in our worship, study, and service together in the community of faith. We still find God speaking to us even as we are confronted with the challenges of living in a changed and changing world that doesn’t look like what we remember it being even a few years ago.

But the key thing for us – and for Mary – is how we respond to God’s message. What do we do when we are bowled over by a powerful and challenging call from God? How do we keep on the path that God intends when we hear something unexpected or unknown?

I think Mary could have responded to the angel’s message in one of two ways. She could have freaked out, doing everything possible to avoid the consequences of his words, working to undermine the angel’s message and the hope of her son not yet born, maybe even saying “no” to the angel.

But Mary did none of this. Instead, she welcomed the uncertainty and challenge of the angel’s message. She set aside her fears and anxiety and opened herself to the possibility, gift, and challenge of being the mother of a child who would transform the world.

Mary’s actions after all this were pretty remarkable, too. She decided not to be ashamed of this child being born out of wedlock, clearly conceived before her marriage to Joseph. For support she set out to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the relative whom the angel had mentioned in his message, who was also expecting an unexpected child. And together they rejoiced in the strange and wonderful gifts of God taking shape and form within their bodies.

During their time together, Mary broke forth into song, echoing her ancestor Hannah and offering the great words known for centuries as the Magnificat. In her song, Mary places the fullness of her joy in the gift of God given not just in her time but across the centuries. In her song, Mary claims the justice and mercy of God for all people. And in her song Mary points the way to a new way of life that her son Jesus would make possible as he came into the world.

All along the way, Mary responded to this strange, challenging, and wonderful message by recognizing that she could only begin to understand what God was doing in and through her life, and yet she had no choice but to offer her thanks and praise.

The message of God before us isn’t quite as clear as it was for Mary, but there are definitely things going on around us that we need to be listening for. Even amidst the economic and political challenges of these times in our world, God is speaking words of comfort and hope to all people – and invites us to join in. God continues to challenge us in the midst of the deep need of so many to embody God’s own attention to and concern for the poor and all who are vulnerable. God calls us to listen for the voices of those who are kept silent or ignored. And God invites us to dream and imagine that things can and will be different for us and all the world, that things don’t have to be returned to their previous state or the clock turned back to make them right but rather can be new and different and wonderful and good as God continues the work of the new creation in us and through us and all around us.

So how will we respond to the message of the angels that God sets before us in these days? Will we consider only the ways and paths that we have known in the past? Will we stay true only to where we have been before and open only to the possibilities that are comfortable and well-known? Will we cower in the corner in fear, unwilling to move anyplace new because we are afraid of losing the little that we have?

Or will we be open to the power of God moving in us here and now? Will we be open to God’s transformation of the gifts that we offer into something greater and better? Will we let God change us and our world to make room not just for the ways that we have known but for the ways that God intends for us and all creation?

Despite my skepticism, these days remind us that angels are still present and at work in our midst, still bearing God’s message to us, in us, and through us, still showing us that God is up to something in our world and in our lives, still inviting us to join in rejoicing because of what God is up to in our world.

In the familiar stories we will hear over the next week, these strange messengers from God keep speaking, bringing more good news not just for a few people but for all humanity, opening the way to transformation for our broken and fearful world, proclaiming hope and joy and peace and love for all people not just at Christmas but all year long.

So may the message of the angels be alive and well in these days, bringing us good news and helping us to respond in faithfulness and joy as we join in God’s good work that is not yet done in our midst.

Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.

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