Monthly Archives: December 2011

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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Rejoice Always

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
preached on December 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

“Rejoice always.”

In the wonderful list of exhortations and instructions that the apostle Paul offers to the church in Thessalonica, I think this one has to be the hardest. It’s not easy to pray without ceasing or give thanks in all circumstances, nor can we easily be open to the words of prophets, hold fast to what is good, or abstain from every form of evil. But “rejoice always”? It just seems nearly impossible.

Thankfully there has been a lot of reason for me to rejoice lately. Last weekend, I spent an afternoon with dear friends and their two sons, enjoying many laughs and lots of fun as we saw a movie and took a leisurely afternoon to wander around Brooklyn together. Then I spent last Sunday evening in one of my favorite churches in Manhattan, listening to beautiful music and timeless words of waiting and wonder amidst the quietness of the Advent season. This week has been a good one on the church front, too – first as we learned that the pending litigation against the church is finally being settled and as we took some major steps toward completing the sale of the manse, too. You’ll be hearing more about these things in the coming weeks, but I for one am quite joyful that things are finally moving along with two projects that have occupied a lot of our time and energy in recent months.

But even amidst all this, everything hasn’t been joyful this week. Even all this joy has been tinged with something else – there’s always been something just under the surface nagging me and suppressing my joy. There were little things that went wrong – a broken paper shredder in the midst of a major cleaning project at the manse that led to an unexpected, unbudgeted expense for me – but also bigger things like changing plans that took away from hoped-for time with friends and another friend who lost his job this week and just doesn’t have a clear picture of what is ahead.

But all the little things that suppress joy in my own life seem so small amidst all the pain and struggle around us in our world – the uncertainty around elections in Russia and the Congo, the continued frustrations of economic and political life in our own nation, state, and city, and the heart-wrenching news of another shooting at Virginia Tech University on Thursday just as they finally were beginning to recover from the last tragedy there several years ago.

So in the midst of all the struggles of our lives, it’s not so easy to “rejoice always” – unless you count schadenfreude, that German concept of taking pleasure in the pain of others, as rejoicing! But yet Paul’s exhortation is still before us: “Rejoice always.”

It was surely just as difficult for his first hearers to take this seriously. They were some of the earliest converts to this new religious practice, and they didn’t have a clear path for how to behave or what to do. They were a tiny minority group in a city and nation where even perceived disloyalty to the practices of the empire meant troubles of all sorts. And people around them just didn’t understand why they would embrace this new religious faith and practice that seemed to bring nothing more than difficulty and struggle. And yet Paul instructed them to rejoice always.

I don’t think Paul didn’t understand what this was all about – he knew that rejoicing isn’t always easy. But he knew that rejoicing is about more than temporary things, about more than happiness in the here and now, about more than just seeing our needs and desires fulfilled and realized right away. Our vision of joy has become so limited, captured in an ideal of happiness for this immediate moment, locked up in snow-capped letters with little meaning on holiday cards or alongside the latest display in your favorite store, found first and foremost in gaining something right away for our immediate fulfillment and happiness.

But there is so much more to this joy and rejoicing than just these things. Joy goes beyond this immediate moment, beyond mere platitudes and snow-capped letters that show up in the ever-expanding holiday season, beyond the momentary happiness that comes as we enjoy time with friends and watch long-planned projects finally come to an end. Instead, real joy inspires us and even demands for us to look beyond the immediate things, to trust that there is something more than what we can see happening before us, to open our eyes to the transformation possible in and through our struggle and our happiness, to hope that God will be up to more than we can imagine and understand.

Advent and Christmas bring us true joy not just because Jesus has come but also and even more because Jesus is coming again, because there will be joy beyond all our dreams, because everything that drains us of true joy will be drained of all its power over us, because this world does not and will not have the last word on anything, for there is great joy yet to come in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so on this Sunday when we celebrate joy, when we let a little more Christmas joy creep into the preparations of our Advent, when we look again to God with hope and longing for the new things yet to come, when we light a pink candle and sing songs that speak of deep joy, we remember not happiness but deep and real joy, not empty platitudes of happiness that last only as long as the newness of gifts on Christmas morning but the joy of promises once fulfilled that will be fulfilled again, not temporary happiness for a few privileged people but permanent and transformative new life for all creation.

Pastor Abby Henrich puts it well, I think:

Joy is not easily won. You only get it by giving of yourself. Then, joy cracks the very center of your being open and allows the terrifying beauty of this world to creep in.

Joy has no defenses. With joy the pain of this life creeps in too.

Yet joy is like slipping on a new pair of glasses. Everything in the world becomes more beautiful and more painful when we open ourselves to joy.

So may we have all that we need to “rejoice always,” to give thanks in all things, and trust that God is still working around us to make all things new in Jesus Christ our Lord, the one who has come and is coming again. Alleluia! Amen.

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The Comfort We Need

a sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11 for the Second Sunday of Advent
preached on December 4, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

There have been a lot of times lately when I’ve just wanted something comforting in my life. I’ve wanted one of those good home-cooked meals like only my parents can prepare – though I’ve found that some barbecue and some Thai food I can get here in New York get pretty close sometimes! I’ve wanted a good conversation with one of those close friends who can listen and understand all the things that are swirling around in life and make things seem to swirl a little less. I’ve wanted to listen to some beautiful music of the Advent season that somehow makes these days feel complete for me.

Thankfully I’ve gotten a taste of these and other comforting things lately, so I’ve gotten some of the comfort that I want, but I have to wonder if it is the comfort that I really need. I’m sure that my doctor for one won’t think particularly highly of the comfort food I’ve eaten lately when I visit him tomorrow. I know I’ve driven some of my friends a bit crazy over the years in seeking out their presence in the midst of my life. And even my carefully-chosen Advent music isn’t always endearing to those who find great comfort in Christmas carols! So it is that all this comfort I want may not be the comfort I need.

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah this morning deals in this comfort that we need:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

There’s no need to worry – God is finally on the scene.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Any punishment the people might have deserved is now over and done with. It’s time to move on.

These words of comfort come out of strange silence – for some forty years, the people of Judah had been suffering in exile in Babylon, wondering when God was going to intervene in their pain and struggle and bring them back home.

So the prophet promises dramatic construction in the wilderness to get back to Jerusalem:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

This comfort, you see, is not just the promise of stability and a return to something seen before. Comfort does not come in fulfilling the people’s wants and desires to turn back the clock. For the prophet, comfort comes in changing things once and for all,  in transforming the world now and always. This is the great promise of what God is doing, the prophet says, for

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This glory is not in the restoration of an old way for one or two people – it comes through a new way of life in the face of a world uprooted and torn apart, through a reconstructed land that pulls together people across all boundaries, through a changed world that shows the glory of God in every place.

In our world filled with much change and uncertainty, we really do need and want comfort and transformation, and probably something more than just a favorite meal, the companionship of a friend, or some beloved music. While our struggles are nowhere near the difficulties faced by the exiles of Judah who were Isaiah’s first audience, it sure feels like it sometimes: the ways of life that we once knew seem to be far off and distant; our nation needs a new and better way of life in our politics, our finances, our economy, and nearly everything else too; and our world faces great danger in the abuse and misuse of its many resources as it needs to show and see more signs of God’s glory every day.

But just like in my own life, the comfort we need in these days isn’t always the comfort we want. Sometimes we think we simply need to turn the clock back to a previous time and place to make things different, but we easily forget that the past had more than its fair share of problems, too. Sometimes we try to fix the struggles of our politics and nation by blaming them on someone else, but the reality is that we ourselves – each and every one of us – are just as responsible as anyone for the mess we face today, and only an honest assessment of our own complicity in our pain and struggle can bring us a different path for the days ahead. And sometimes we mix up God’s glory and our own glory, suggesting that God’s blessing upon America or this church or our privilege and status in life is the great expression of God’s presence in our world, when in reality God’s glory defies all these boundaries and expectations and brightens the darkness of every time and place with justice and life.

So amidst the comfort that we want, maybe we need to seek the comfort we need more like what Isaiah describes – an honest, heartfelt, compassionate, tender expression of love and support combined with real and true steps toward the new way of life that God envisions for us.

I think it’s quite appropriate that we hear this text in these days, for Advent is the time when we remember that God sends us the comfort that we need. God’s comfort for our world comes not with the end of waiting but in the midst of it, not with a powerful and immediate transformation of things but with patience and deliberation and hope for God’s return to our midst, not with blinding bursts of light in the darkness but in the great simplicity of one or two candles shining boldly in the night, not with a giant feast spread across many tables but with a small taste of the kingdom in a little portion of bread and grape juice shared at one table, not with a king sent in royal garb to rule and reign with great power but with a baby born Prince of Peace to show tenderness, mercy, and love.

So may this Advent be filled not so much with the comfort we want but the comfort that we need as God steps in to change things, as we take our own steps along the path toward God’s incredible new thing is transforming our world, as we look for the glory of the Lord being revealed in our midst so that when the Great Comforter comes we might be ready to embrace his presence and live in his love for others and ourselves each and every day.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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