Monthly Archives: December 2010

A New Perspective for Christmas

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent on Matthew 1:18-25
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on December 19, 2010

The Christmas season is filled with wonderful traditions in our lives, and the life of our congregation is no exception. We’re right in the middle of the biggest span of Christmas events, as you probably know. Many of you joined in hanging the greens here in the sanctuary a week or so ago or in celebrating at our congregational Christmas Party this past Friday night, and we still have our annual caroling excursion tonight and the festive celebration of the coming of our Lord on Christmas Eve.

Each year, we approach this very familiar holiday in much the same way, with things changing mainly by necessity and only rarely by choice. In my family, we celebrated Christmas in much the same way every year up until seven or eight years ago. On Christmas Eve, we always gathered at my mom’s parents’ home, went to the early church service, came home to a festive and sumptuous dinner, then adjourned to the living room to sing carols, hear the Christmas story from Luke, and open most of the gifts before going to bed. Then on Christmas morning, we would get up and see what Santa had brought us in our stockings, topping off our celebrations at lunchtime with yet another overwhelming holiday meal that prepared us well for a long winter’s nap on Christmas afternoon!

But then, about seven or eight years ago, things changed in our Christmas celebrations. My grandfather died, and my grandmother moved from their home, first to a condominium and then to an assisted living facility. I moved to New York City and took up a job that carries responsibilities until late on Christmas Eve – and sometimes on Christmas Day, too, leading me to spend my first Christmas night as a pastor by myself in a hotel near the Cincinnati airport after missing my connection there! At the same time, others in the family started to develop their own practices and habits based on their own changing and shifting lives.

After a year or two of trying to hold onto all the old traditions, we quickly learned that we needed to see Christmas from a different perspective, to stop trying to fit the square peg of our Christmas traditions into the round hole of our lives that was emerging before us and to open ourselves to something new for Christmas, built less on the practices and traditions we had established for ourselves over the years and more on the concepts and principles that had shaped our practices in this way over the years. It’s not perfect, but slowly and surely, with each passing year, we are starting to see and celebrate Christmas from a different perspective.

This morning, our reading from Matthew offers us a different perspective on the Christmas story. Beginning with this Advent, we’ll spend much of this next liturgical year making our way through Matthew’s gospel as we do every third year, but Matthew’s take on the Christmas story that we heard this morning is quite different from what we are used to hearing. While the gospel of Luke goes on at length about angels visiting Mary and Mary offering an incredible song of of praise to God in response, Matthew makes Mary the secondary character in the story. Here, Joseph takes center stage, receiving his own visit from the angel of the Lord, facing his own challenge to receive a strange and uncertain word and respond with grace and hope.

Mary and Joseph had gotten engaged, but before they could get married, Mary became pregnant. Joseph, just trying to do the right thing for Mary, felt like he should just let her go, but then the angel appeared to him in a dream, instructing him to go ahead and take her as his wife, for she had not been sleeping around on him but was rather pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child to be named Jesus because he would save the people from their sins. Matthew interrupts the story to note that all this happened to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard this morning, but he finally reports that Joseph did as the angel had told him: Joseph took Mary to be his wife and named the son born to her Jesus.

At the core so much of this story is the same as what we’re used to hearing from Luke – a young unmarried woman is found to be pregnant, her husband-to-be decides not to cast her off, and an angel appears to explain how all this works and encourage everyone not to be too alarmed by what is happening. Even so, Matthew’s telling offers us just enough of a different perspective on things that it reminds us how much we need a change sometimes. Putting Joseph rather than Mary at the center of things invites us to consider that there were a lot of people who had something to say about what was happening here – not just Mary and Joseph but surely also their parents, their relatives, their neighbors, even the spiritual guides of their community. Hearing a different angel voice speaking to Joseph reminds us that we can all hear different things from our one God. And Joseph and Mary’s strange and seemingly inappropriate pregnancy suggests that God can and does work outside the boundaries we establish in our world.

This story reminds us that especially in these days we need a different perspective on Christmas. Too often the story of Christmas we tell is so familiar that we forget its radical message and purpose and so miss the real meaning of Christmas for us and our world. My favorite clergy comedy, The Vicar of Dibley, put this tendency so well. As the female vicar prepared to celebrate her second Christmas in a small town, her quite ditzy assistant notes that she didn’t remember the first sermon Christmas sermon the vicar had preached the year before.

“Not that it’s your fault – you probably just chose a boring subject,” she said.

The vicar responded, “The birth of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the greatest story ever told?”

“Well, yeah, the first time you hear it, but after that, it’s a bit predictable, isn’t it? Man and woman get to inn, inn full, woman has baby in manger, angels sing on high, blah blah blah.”

“You have forgotten to mention that that baby is in fact the son of God.”

“Oh yeah, I know, I mean, that’s a nice twist.”

“Nice twist?”

“Yeah, but they aren’t exactly a lot of laughs!” (“The Christmas Lunch Incident”)

I don’t think we necessarily need a lot of laughs to get a new perspective on the Christmas story, but we do need something to help us see this incredible event in a new way. This is about more than shepherds and angels, more than an unwed mother and an uncertain father, more than a baby in a manger – the Christmas story is about how God breaks into our world and does something new when and where we least expect it, shifting our perspective at every turn and inviting us not just to go through the motions of a well-worn season but to see how Christmas changes everything – how God shows power and salvation through a little child, how God works through a strange, unexpected, unmarried couple to shape and mold one who bears salvation into the world, even how God invites us today to stop forcing our square pegs into round holes and so be a part of the incredible new thing that is coming even now. Christmas reminds us that God has changed the way God relates to us in these days, shifting from enforcing laws to proclaiming good news, moving from a set of rules to a wide-ranging relationship, enabling a new vision built not upon grudges but on grace.

That’s why I believe Advent is so important, my friends. If this Christmas is worthy of our celebration, then it is worthy of our preparation, to make space for something incredible and new to take hold in the world. If we believe what we say happens on this coming Christmas Day, then things ought to be different on the other side of it – and this side too! – so that God in Jesus Christ is more than just another baby and another birthday for us. If Christmas really is the day when God breaks into the darkness of our world and of our lives, then it deserves not to be the culmination of all worldly holidays, uplifted in the public sphere and celebrated even by those who misunderstand and disbelieve its central claims, but rather should be a time to celebrate and live our call to see things from a new perspective, for this is the time when God began to see things so clearly through our own human eyes and began to bring new light into all the world.

As these Advent days draw to a close and we welcome the Christ child, may God bring us all a new perspective on these Christmas days and the days to come so that we might be strengthened to walk in this new light even on the darkest of days until God’s brightness comes again to illumine us all forever. Lord, come quickly! Amen.


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Joyful Waiting

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent on Isaiah 35:1-10 and James 5:7-10
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on December 12, 2010

This is a special Sunday for us in these Advent days, for today on the third Sunday of Advent we light that strange pink candle that stands so lonely among the deep rich blue of longing and hope that marks these days. Like that pink candle, today is a bit of a suspension of the introspective mood that marks most of Advent, for this is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “joy,” a time for celebration in the midst of a dark and uncertain season.

Our text from Isaiah suggests a bit of that joy for us, too. In the midst of the prophet’s relentless attacks on the people of Israel for their disobedience, simple stubbornness, and deep injustice, we find this little glimpse of hope for something new, a claim that one day things will be different and all people will cry out with a new song of joy and hope. The prophet makes it clear that things will be strangely different in this day to come. The wilderness and the desert will no longer be places for the outcast but will instead be filled with the glory of God. The weak and suffering will long for wholeness no more, for they will be made strong by the power of God. In this day to come, human bodies will work as they were intended as God eases pain once and for all. This way of life will not be difficult to find – it will be easily accessible by the best road imaginable, with God’s people always welcome and safe there, rejoicing and giving thanks to God at every step of the journey, with “everlasting joy… upon their heads” for all time thanks to the provision of God.

Now this joy that Isaiah describes is a bit beyond our imagination, let alone our immediate understanding – but we surely have had glimpses of this kind of joy here and there in our lives. As I think back over the last year, I must say that one of my greatest joys came back in July when Julie and I spent a week at St. Olaf College for their Conference on Worship, Theology, and the Arts. I’ve long admired St. Olaf from afar, but the sheer joy we found as we walked into that incredible place and shared such wonderful experiences of worship and music is some of the deepest joy I have known in a long time.

But what about you? Where have you seen joy at its fullest in these days? Where have you come closest to the kind of joy that Isaiah promises will mark all of our days? Take a minute or two to reflect and share your joy with someone near you, then we’ll come back together with a bit of singing. For blog readers, post in the comments!

(pause for conversation, concluded by singing “He Came Down” by John Bell)

Today, when we celebrate a bit of our joy in this season, we remember that even the greatest joy we know now is not complete. There is something more ahead. God is not done with the world quite yet. As amazing and joyous as Christmas is, there is more joy to come. But therein lies what makes this joy all the more difficult – it is not here yet. The world does not work as God intends all the time. Pain and sorrow and suffering and sighing are very much before us. Sometimes when it does come, joy disappears all too quickly and leaves us wanting and waiting for more.

And it is for moments like these that our reading from James this morning speaks so loudly to us: be patient. In fact, he says it four times in these four verses: be patient! He and his first readers knew that there was something more ahead, but like us they all too quickly recognized that something was missing from the world. In days of waiting, it is easy to give up, but James urges us to wait patiently, “for the coming of the Lord is near.” All the things that Isaiah promised and more will come true soon. Things will work as God intends. Pain and sorrow and suffering and sighing will be a thing of the past. And joy will be at its fullest, for God will be among us once again as Christ returns to live and reign among us forever and ever. But in the meantime, we must be patient.

It’s not quite as easy for me to be patient as it is for me to be joyful. Sure, it’s hard to wait on Christmas sometimes, but I think this kind of patience and waiting is even tougher than that. As I think back on the Advent season in recent years in my life, I remember so often waiting for something or other to come along – and year after year I find myself still waiting for so many of the same things, still frustrated by things too absent or too present in my life, still longing for that promised joy to become real – but it doesn’t.

What are you waiting patiently for this Advent season? How can you be reassured in the coming of the Lord that this need will be fulfilled? Take a moment and think on these things, and share with your neighbor again if you like before we come back together with a bit more singing. For blog readers, post in the comments!

(pause for conversation, concluded by singing “He Came Down”)

In these Advent days, I think we find a strange mix of patience and joy, a blend of these very different emotions as we walk with anticipation and hope into the incredible fullness of life that God intends. Our third text this morning blends patience and joy as well as any I know as it looks forward to that new thing that God is doing even now. We didn’t even really read it, but we sang it in our last hymn – this beautiful hymn is actually a powerful setting of the great, joyous text of Mary’s Song, an outburst of praise offered after encountering the angel who told her she would bear a son and name him Jesus and after sharing a sacred moment with her relative Elizabeth who was also bearing a strange and unexpected child.

Mary’s Song, in this great setting by Irishman Rory Cooney, shouts forth immediately with great joy for the many blessings God has showered on Mary and the people – but then it reminds us that “wondrous things” come “to the ones who wait.” Mary sees things changing – but they are not fully real yet.

“Could the world be about to turn?” she asks in the words of our song. There are incredible marks of God’s justice ahead, worthy of great rejoicing even now, even though they are not all real yet. There are amazing possibilities for God’s way to take hold, so awesome that she can sing praise for them even though their fullness is still far off. And even amidst the turmoil and waiting of the world, Mary rejoices because God “holds us fast” as we bear the promise from generation to generation until we must be patient no longer.

And so my friends, it is this kind of joy we find before us today – joy not fully revealed, joy still strangely incomplete, joy still awaiting its full revelation in Christmas and to the end of the world. But this joy nonetheless breaks into our waiting – our stubbornness, our frustration, our despair, our pain, our doubt, our certainty, our uncertainty, all the things that mark this season and all our days – and then this joy starts to turn things around. We know that Christmas and all its glory and hope lies ahead, but we must still wait for the even greater glory yet to come, when all things will be made new, the world is turned around, and rejoicing will be all we do.

May God strengthen us in our waiting and sustain us in our rejoicing until we know the fullness of God’s joy each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Making Room

a sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 for the Second Sunday of Advent
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on December 5, 2010

In the midst of a busy season, somehow John attracted a crowd. People didn’t come because of his clothes – if anything, they came in spite of his animal skin wardrobe. People didn’t come to enjoy the finest meals in Judea – his food was the simple subsistence of the poor, as he ate whatever insects he could find and made them palatable with wild honey. And people definitely didn’t come because it was nearby – John made the wilderness his headquarters for living and teaching and preaching, choosing to stay far away from the center of power and prestige in Jerusalem, and yet people went out of their way to hear him.

John was on the margins, and yet he attracted a crowd. Maybe people came because of John’s message, then. But this was no easy message, either: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Turn away from the way of life you have known and turn back toward God. Leave behind the accommodations to the empire and lip service to religion. Take up the mantle of new life, peace, and hope because something bigger is on the way.

But John’s message wasn’t all that he offered – he also invited those who heard him to join him in a ritual washing of sin in the Jordan River. Even this ritual washing wasn’t all that was going on – people were changing. Things were shifting. The old ways were starting to open up. A new way was coming into being because there was something more ahead, and a crowd was gathering around to see what was going on.

Nowadays I for one wonder a bit about John’s message and the crowd it brought in. Repentance doesn’t seem to be the way to attract people these days – so many churches that seem to be successful by the world’s standards in 2010 worship in buildings that look more like a school auditorium than a sanctuary, come up with creative names that avoid the word “church” – let alone any denominational affiliation! – at all costs, and promote a faith that belongs more in the self-help section of the bookstore than in the pews of Sunday morning – all a far cry from the message of repentance that John offered in his ministry. But John nonetheless offered his proclamation to them and us: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Repentance is a cornerstone of our faith, and it is good that John reminds us of it in this season. While we have often allowed commercialism and nostalgia to take precedence in this season, the real preparation for Christmas comes in making room amidst the clutter of our lives for the new thing God is doing at Christmas and beyond, opening ourselves to the kingdom of heaven as it becomes real around us. The call to repentance is an excellent approach to these days, but it is more than just a legalistic condemnation of moral missteps. As one commentator puts it:

Repentance is not primarily about our stands of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image. (John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word)

Maybe it was John’s message that brought people out to him after all, and maybe that same kind of message should shape our own proclamation in these Christmas days, our simple living in peace and joy and justice in response to the one who has come and is coming again.

But John was not finished with his message quite yet. Repentance was important for everyone, but he had a special word to share with some of those who had made the trek out to the wilderness. Some of the religious leaders of the day – from two different and opposing sects, no less! – all made their way out to the wilderness to see for themselves what was going on – perhaps to join in, perhaps to oppose it (the Greek can mean either – see William R. Herzog II in Feasting on the Word). But John’s message was not about reinforcing the establishment leaders. Instead, he called them a “brood of vipers,” suggesting that they too needed to take repentance seriously so that they too would bear fruit in these new days. No one had an exclusive hold on the line of faith after Abraham as they seemed to think – instead, John reminded these leaders that God could raise up children to Abraham even from the stones of the wilderness. So he called everyone who would hear to be a part of something more, to do more than just repent and be baptized but to wait and listen for another with more power and more presence who was coming after him to do what he did and much, much more.

The second part of John’s message is one we would probably prefer to ignore, and usually we drown it out with choirs of children and all the other wonderful sounds of the holiday season. But John’s message of judgment upon the religious leaders of his day hits pretty close to home. It suggests that we may not have the exclusive claim on God’s message that we think, that God may be working in the world beyond our imagination or comprehension, even that we might not deserve the privileged status of faith that we think we deserve in these days. In John’s proclamation we see hints of this becoming real in the world. John doesn’t put the focus on himself but insists that the focus be on repentance and preparing the way. He demands not assent to his way of life but a change in each person’s way of life to align more closely with God’s intentions. And John steps out of the center of power to say that there always places where God’s message needs to take root – not in bringing more to “believe” exactly as we do but in making God’s way of justice, peace, and love more real and complete for all people.

So how do we proclaim this message? Can we take John’s proclamation of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” seriously in this season when we are so focused on getting ready for the trappings of the holiday that we so easily miss the incredible things that God is doing? Can such a message be heard? And what sort of response can we really expect?

While we certainly can wonder about how others will hear this, I think we have to start by hearing these words anew and taking them seriously ourselves. At the core, these words call us back to a way that we can remember. They suggest that we reclaim something we once had and demand that we look back to determine what is ahead. These words do not suggest that we can solve our problems by returning to what we think we once were but instead offer us something new grounded in the core promises of God that we can remember: the ability to overcome sin by no power or action of our own, the promise of God to overturn the ways of the world and make all things new, and the response that we are called to offer as we walk the way of repentance in this day and always.

And so John invites us to repent – to ground ourselves anew in the promises of God to bring new life, to be held accountable by God and the community of faith for the kind of life that we see demonstrated in these days, and to hold our hope not in the gifts or trappings of an arbitrary holiday but in the new life that God promises to make real and whole around us. Only after all this can we find the kingdom of heaven coming near and imagine the way of peace and justice described in the incredible words of Isaiah we heard this morning becoming real in our midst. In the light of repentance, we can finally see the creatures of the earth coming together in peace and harmony, led by the grace and mercy of a little child as God’s presence becomes real and whole in all the world.

So as a seal of this promised day yet to come – and a reminder of the promises already fulfilled – we gather at this table, a place where we can know God’s presence and God’s grace as all are welcome to be filled and made whole again and we glimpse the coming kingdom of heaven in the faces of those with us here and the presence of no less than Jesus himself.

Until that day when Isaiah’s words become real and complete and whole for all creation and we feast at table with Christ as our host, may we make a place in these Advent days for what God is doing in our world, what God has done around us and before us, and what God promises to do ahead of us so that all things can be made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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