Christmas 2021 – The Return of Ricky Bobby

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  All people?  I’ve been stuck on this very familiar line for the last two weeks.  Is this Christmas good news for people living in hotels because their homes are too damaged?  Is this Christmas good news for people mourning the loss of loved ones to natural disaster, violence, or disease?  Is this Christmas good news to the tired, over-worked, and heavily burdened?  Can the good news that the angels brought into the Judean countryside really be for all people?  I suppose these questions could be asked every year, but when widespread pain hits so close to home, they seem to sit down in our living rooms, look us in the eye, and ask, do you really believe in this good news?

It’s been an uphill battle, to be sure, but tonight, I am finally back to the place where I can say, with full conviction that, yes, I do believe that the birth of a baby in a backwater town, to an unwed mother, two thousand years ago is good news for all people.  I believe it, in part, because I have come to know this child, Jesus, in my life in many different ways.  Earlier this week, at the funeral service for the longest-tenured member of this congregation, Jesus came to me as the Good Shepherd depicted in the window above me.  He arrived as a comforter who promises to carry me through those moments when I just can’t handle one more thing.  I’m grateful to Good Shepherd Jesus because he got me through the hardest parts of this week.

As the week went on, however, I found another Jesus creeping into my consciousness.  This Jesus knew that I had a sermon to write for tonight and just kept nagging at me to tell his story.  This Jesus is the baby Jesus, but not the tender and mild one you see in nativity scenes the world over.  Instead, this Jesus was first introduced to me in the 2006 theological wonder known as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Ricky Bobby, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Farrell, is a successful NASCAR driver.  One night, as he, his wife, kids, father-in-law, and best friend sit down to a dinner made up of all his sponsors, Ricky began to pray,

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell… Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also want to thank you for my wife’s father, Chip, we hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg… Dear tiny, infant Jesus…”

When challenged with the fact that Jesus did, in fact, grow up, Ricky responds, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teen-age Jesus, or bearded Jesus, whoever you want…” He folds his hands and bows his head again and says, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your Golden Fleece diapers with your tiny, little, fat balled up first…”
Again, Ricky is challenged, “He was a man, he had a beard!”  Ricky finally finishes his prayer, “Dear eight-pound six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won… thank you for all your power and your grace dear baby God, Amen.”

It is very strange to hear it out loud, but I think that this is often the way we pray. “Dear tiny infant Jesus” is a pleasant way to picture our God. And, you know, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that image of Jesus. It is part of what makes Christmas so special. God came to earth to put creation back together not by appearing magically out of thin air, but through the natural means by which a human being comes it this world. God entered the world just as helpless as the rest of us. God arrived as “dear tiny infant Jesus” – fully God and fully human.

God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  In that same dinner prayer scene, Ricky’s friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. tells Ricky, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too…” and “I like to think of Jesus with giant, eagle’s wings and singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel band…”  Ricky’s oldest son, Walker tells his dad that he likes to think of Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.  Like I said, God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  The good news for all people is that in the incarnation, God became human so that humanity might become like God.

Incarnation is a fancy church word, and for that I’m sorry. It is created by combining two Latin words. The first, y’all know well, “in” which means, well, in. The second is “carnis” which means flesh. In – Flesh. Theologically, it is the understanding that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation means that God was one of us. It means that as Jesus experienced desires, temptations, frustrations, joys; all the messiness of life as a human being, it became a part of God.  As Jesus experienced them, so too did God.  Jesus being “in flesh” means that the gap between God and humanity was bridged; our relationship was restored. God, having now felt what it is like to be a human, to have a will that is prone to messing up, knows more fully what it means when we come to God with all of our joys and all of our sorrows. God was “in flesh” on earth! This is the good news of Christmas; God intervening radically in creation to restore our relationship; not just as a helpless baby, but throughout the life of experiences of teenage Jesus and grown-up, bearded Jesus.

Not only does God experience what it is like to be human, but we have a chance to see how God would have us live. The other side of the Incarnation coin is that God is made comprehensible by being “in flesh.” In the full life of Jesus, we see a life lived fully in accordance with God’s will. From Jesus’ first cry as an infant to his final gasp for breath on the cross, we get in the life of Jesus a life lived in perfect harmony with God. And, to be honest, we see that it isn’t all that demanding. It begins with a life lived modeling tiny-infant-Jesus; looking up with wide-eyed awe at the splendor of God’s creation; recognizing our full dependence on God for all things. As we grow in faith, we become more like teenage Jesus, getting to know God through Worship and the word. And then, as we mature, the model becomes grown-up-bearded Jesus. His life was one of service to the poor, outcast, sick, widowed, and orphaned. It was a life lived sharing the good news of God’s divine justice for the oppressed, the sad, and the lonely. It is a full life; from birth to death; a life lived from Sunday to Saturday – week after week after week.

The incarnation is all about God’s love for us overflowing. It is about God coming “in flesh” to show us how to live in response to that great love. As we gather this night to celebrate the Incarnation in the Nativity of tiny-infant Jesus we take that first step. As we leave tonight to await Santa’s arrival, we enter the world refreshed and renewed; ready to live another year in the model of the life of God “in flesh”. We prepare ourselves for another try at living in full harmony with the will of God. But we go, not filled with our own abilities, but instead empowered by the Holy Spirit, glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen; excited for what a life lived with Jesus has in store.

Thanks be to God for sending Jesus to us in exactly the way we need him: newborn infant Jesus; teen-aged Jesus, Good Shepherd Jesus, Ninja Jesus, or Lynyrd Skynyrd Jesus. Thanks be to God for being willing to restore all of creation by living as one of us. And thanks be to God for the perfect model of Kingdom living. May God fill us to overflowing for another year of trying to live that life. Amen.

Wilbur Chocolate Christmas

       When I was a kid, I rode the bus to school.  Every morning, my sister and I would head down the hill to the corner of Blossom Hill Drive and Delp Road to wait for Bus 32 to arrive.  The bus stop was a little spit of grass, between the fence line and the intersection, marked by a red fire hydrant.  Growing up in Amish Country, like I did, most days, with the prevailing winds out of the west, the air was thick with the smell of cow manure wafting from the bucolic farms that still surrounded our rapidly sprawling community.  It wasn’t a pleasant smell, as you might guess, but we were used to it, so most days, it wasn’t terrible.  There were a few mornings, however, when the winds would shift and begin to blow from the north.  Those days were the best days, as the smell of cow manure was replaced by the aroma drifting off the Wilbur Chocolate Factory.  It didn’t matter how long we had to wait for the bus on Wilbur Chocolate days, we were glad to stand around and enjoy the scent of chocolate hanging in the air.

       I’ve reminisced a lot about the differences between Wilbur Chocolate days and normal bus stop days as I’ve thought about how different Christmas looks and feels in 2020 than in other years, especially as it relates to the Nativity scene and the birth of our Lord.  Most years, the manger we imagine is a Wilbur Chocolate, Norman Rockwell scene.  We tend to romanticize the story of Jesus’ birth with images of quiet cattle resting and sheep gently nibbling on grass.  The air smells of the sweetness of hay.  Mary and Joseph, despite the long journey and arduous, first century, birthing process, are well groomed, in neatly pressed attire, ready to receive the shepherds as guests and, if that one Christmas song is to be believed, even willing to put up with a little drummer boy offering the only gift he could muster.  Then there is the baby Jesus, no crying he makes, wrapped in swaddling clothes, tender and mild, and lying in the manger, aglow with the radiance of God’s glory.

In 2020, however, I wonder if we’re able to see a more accurate portrayal of the Nativity.  A scene more like the one evoked by a tweet I saw earlier this week.  “‘Infant so tender and mild’ suggests the existence of a spicy baby.”[1]  What if, instead of the sweet smell of hay, our noses were more in tune with Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Toddy County, Kentucky and the scent of animal… by-products?  Mary, her hair matted from sweat and her eyes puffy from tears, is doing her best to hold it together, as she takes it all in, wondering what exactly she signed up for when Gabriel appeared before her nine months ago.  Meanwhile, Joseph, unsure of exactly how to help, keeps watch from the entrance of the small cave cut into the hill.  The baby, well, he might be quiet now, but we all know that won’t last long.  Tender and mild, KFC Jesus will be Popeye’s spicy soon enough.  The animals are restless, as the shepherds with their own particular aroma and colorful language, tell a story that is too fantastic to be believed.  All of this comes before the three wise men bring gifts suitable for embalming and Simeon promises Mary that her son’s life story would ultimately be a sword that pierces her heart.  It isn’t exactly the olive woodcut scene we’re used to, but there is a gift in the messiness.

Here’s what I love about Christmas.  Whether the experience is cow manure or Wilbur chocolate, the truth is that God is there.  The hardship of 2020 might have removed some of the misty romance from our Christmas celebrations, but the good news about the birth of Jesus is that God enters the darkness to bring light; God enters the messiness to bring restoration; God enters a fearful and violent world to bring hope and peace.  Christmas doesn’t have to be a Hallmark movie set, ripped from the pages of Pinterest, smelling like a Yankee candle to be perfect.  Instead, maybe the perfect Christmas is the messiness of opening presents over Facetime, while eating cookies that were shared via a no-contact-porch-drop, in a house that smells like dog because you haven’t vacuumed the couch in longer than you’d like to admit.  It’s perfect not because it has all the right trappings, but because God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Gospel is clear that the first Christmas was far from perfect.  Whether it was the Emperor moving people around like puppets on a string or that the only room available for Mary to give birth to Jesus was a musty feed barn, the circumstances into which the Son of God was born aren’t what anyone would have imagined.  Yet still, the angels appear to the shepherds living in the fields, and proclaim good news of great joy for all the world.  “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”  No matter the messiness of it all, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One has been born for us, and the once dark world is now bright with the light of Christ.

We will probably remember 2020 as a year filled with cow manure, but today, the winds have shifted and the sweet aroma of hope is upon us.  In the birth of Jesus, a light has shined on all who live in deep darkness.  Through Christ, we are able to see past the hardships of today as we work to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more compassionate world.  Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more peaceful society.  The winds of change are upon us this morning.  God is here.  May your Christmas be a Wilbur Chocolate day in a year of Amish Farms, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.


[1] https://twitter.com/vivarockbella/status/1336378854282153984

Defying Traditions

This might come as a surprise to you, as we gather at a very traditional Christmas Eve service,  in a very traditional church, wearing very traditional vestments, singing very traditional carols, but I’m really not that big on traditions.  I am keenly aware that most of “the way things have always been” started in the 1950s, and I don’t really think they need to be held on to just for tradition’s sake.  For example, I’m not really a fan of singing Silent Night by candlelight, but I also like my job, so I’m not going to change it for change sake, either.  Anyway, that’s another sermon for another Christmas Eve.  I am also keenly aware that of all the days of the year, Christmas is the one that carries with it the most tradition – family, civic, cultural, and religious.  Many of you are probably here this evening, up way past your usual bedtime because it is just what you do on Christmas Eve.  I’ve been attending a “Midnight Mass” at an Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember because it was the tradition in my own family.

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I may not see the need to hold on to traditions for tradition’s sake, but I understand quite well their importance.  Traditions are important because they give us something to hold on to when the world around us seems to be shifting right before our very eyes.  The cold, dark winter days; the changing of the calendar year; children growing up; it seems that tradition is especially important around Christmas because this time of year reminds us that time marches on.  In the face of that unrelenting reality, we hold on to the past, to things that bring us comfort.  For my family growing up, the tradition we repeated every year was the annual Friday after Thanksgiving cutting of the Christmas tree.  We’d get up early and drive an hour north of town to a huge Christmas tree farm, in search of the perfect tree.  When we found a good one, my sister or I would stand by it, while rest went in search of one better.  When THE TREE was finally settled upon, my dad would take out his trusty hacksaw and fell it like a lumberjack of old.  We’d tie it to the top of the minivan and head home, excited to cover it with lights and decorations.

There was one problem with our big annual tradition, however.  My mother, my sister, and I are all very allergic to pine trees.  Wheezing, hacking, sneezing, with a headache to boot, our time spent decorating the tree was mostly a misery, yet year after year, we held on to that tradition.  One year, my mother read an article that said you could cut down the allergic effects of a real Christmas tree by running it through the car wash on your way home.  Having once again found the perfect tree, we tied it to the top of our Dodge Caravan and headed home.  On the way, dad ran through a car wash to rinse off the pine dander, and by the end of the day, we had a beautifully decorated tree with somewhat less itching or sneezing.  However, as the weeks went by, we noticed that despite regular watering, needles seemed to be falling of the tree faster this year than most. And then, on Christmas Eve morning, as if the tree knew what day it was, every last needle dropped to the floor. There we were: my mother crying while the rest of us were red-eyed and sneezing because the allergy reducing effect didn’t last, staring at a dead Fraser fir, decked in lights and ornaments and popcorn and cranberries, but lacking all of its needles. As this story has been told over the years, the amount of money the replacement tree cost has risen with inflation, but whatever the price, it was way too much to pay for a Christmas tree. Whether the blame falls on the scalding hot water, forgetting to deselect the hot wax option, or the turbo dryer at the end of the car wash, we will never know, but one thing was certain on that December the 24th, the tradition to which we had clung for so many years was finally over.  By the next Christmas, we had a lovely fake tree all ready to decorate Thanksgiving weekend.

The Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve is a story of tradition.  Each person named plays their traditional role.  Caesar Augustus plays the traditional role of the capricious political figure who used his power to move people around like pawns on a chess board.  Joseph, of the House of David, plays the traditional role of nervous father-to-be.  His job was to help Mary, a very traditional young, first-time mother along the arduous, hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The baby is born in the traditional manner, albeit in the non-traditional location of an animal pen.  The shepherds play their traditional role, doing the twenty-four hour a day, hard work of tending sheep outside of town.  Shepherds were considered unclean, and weren’t able to move about like other people.  In the midst of this traditional scene enter some very non-traditional characters.  An angel of the Lord appeared before them, joined quickly by a whole choir of angels who sang out with great joy the Good News of the birth of a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.

All of a sudden, all that is traditional goes out the window, and the whole world changes.  The shepherds run to the city to see this thing that the angels described.  Breaking tradition by entering the city at all, especially at night, once the gates had been shut, the shepherds, unclean as they are, find their way to the cave where Mary, also unclean from having given birth, Joseph, and the baby are resting, as best they can, on this most holy and different kind of night.  In the birth of Jesus, all of Creation, broken as it was and continues to be, was turned right-side up, if only for a fleeting moment, the twinkling of an eye, the flashing of a star.

Now that I’m grown and have my own children, we’ve created our own traditions.  In our family, we don’t have a real Christmas tree, but we do watch some of our favorite Christmas movies.  Home Alone 1 and 2, the Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I defy you not to get goose bumps when Linus steps out onto that stage and recites Luke’s Christmas Gospel.  It was pointed out to me for the first time this year that while Linus says those same traditional words from the King James Version that Deacon Kellie just read, as he comes to the place where the angel appears before the shepherd and says, “Fear not,” Linus lets go of his blankie.  A traditional symbol of that to which we cling, Linus is able to let go even as the shepherds are able to resist social norms in order to rush into the city of Bethlehem to see the newborn King.

Linus has me wondering this year what I need to let go of.  What kind of things am I holding on to that are keeping me from embracing the love of God that was fully made known in the birth of Jesus Christ?  For some, tradition holds them back.  Sometimes, it is that the tradition has become the object of worship.  For others, the tradition has lost its power and simply feels like a rote expectation placed upon them.  I think for most of us, the thing that we cling to that keeps us from fully embracing the gift of the Messiah is fear.  That’s why Linus carried that blanket, isn’t it?  To keep the fear at bay?  Fear made Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in the first place.  Fear kept the shepherds out in the fields at night.  Fear tells us that we are not enough or that there isn’t enough to go around.  Fear grips us and holds us back, even as we cling to it because at times, it seems to be the only thing we know for sure.

But all traditions were broken and fear lost its power when, in a field outside Bethlehem, an angel appeared and said, “Fear not.”  Let go of your fear.  Join with the shepherds, set aside traditions and fear this Christmas Eve, and rush toward the Messiah, so that you too might leave this place glorifying God in your heart with praise on your lips, for unto you, and me, and the whole world is born this night, in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  Amen.

In the Quiet – a Christmas Day sermon

For all the pomp and circumstance of Christmas Eve, I have to think that maybe these quiet Christmas morning services are really what it’s all about.  Like Linus, standing alone in the spotlight, reciting the Christmas story, this morning’s service eschews all the glitz and glamor that has come to be associated with Christmas simply to focus on what is important – what is real.

“For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Amidst the twinkling lights, the torn paper, and the Carpenter’s Christmas album on repeat, this morning we pause to give thanks for a rather inauspicious birth that forever changed the world.  Mary and Joseph were nobody folk from a nowhere town.  They were forced to travel, against their will and despite Mary’s being great with child, in order to be counted in a census that was meant only to add to their tax burden.  They were late to arrive, and left to spend that most important night in a feel stall.  Lo and behold, it was time for the baby to be born.  As Jan Funk so wisely suggested in her Advent Devotion from a week or so ago, last night was anything but quiet.  Birth suites, no matter how finely appointed or carefully named by marketing experts, are still places filled with struggle, pain, noise, and of course, blood, sweat, and tears.

Now, we find ourselves in the morning after.  Mom and Dad, worn out from the long day that is past, are likely doing as little as possible.  Sleep when the baby sleeps, is as good advice now as it would have been back then.  As they try to rest and take stock of what is next for this little bundle of joy that came without an instruction manual, I’m guessing there were long periods of silence, interrupted only by Jesus’ need to eat or the cattle’s desire to move about.  In the silence of this morning’s service, perhaps we can find ourselves in that feed stall, alongside the holy family, in awe of what God is up to in this tiny, fragile, child who, in eight days, will be named Jesus, Hebrew for God saves.

Last night, as the Shepherds watched over their flocks, God entered the world.  In the darkness, on the margins, in the midst of turmoil, God showed up to save the world.  Today, and every day that follows, we are invited to live into that salvation.  We are invited to sit in the quietness of the morning after and to listen for the still small voice of God.  We are welcome to sit beside Mary as she ponders all of what has transpired over the last nine months in her heart.

As we sit with Mary, it seems to me that our reading from Isaiah comes into focus.  As we look upon the newborn child who will grow up to show us the way of justice and righteousness, it would behoove us not to get too lost in the fragility of this baby boy.  Rather, we who know the fullness of the story of Jesus who will be called the Christ, should use this moment of quiet reflection as an opportunity to remember our call as his disciples to be about the work of the Prince of Peace.  In this time of refreshment and renewal, we should be steeling ourselves for another year of working toward the dream of God.  The zeal of the Lord brought our Savior into this world on Christmas night, and that same zeal calls us ever forward, striving ever toward the Kingdom of Heaven, where every human being is treated with dignity and respect, where love never fails, and where joy is freely given to all.  The zeal of the Lord bring with it good news of great joy, my friends, for unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Mega Joy of Christmas – a sermon

You can listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read it here.

Merry Christmas!


​        I’m not sure there is anything that Saint Luke can’t do. He might be history’s first renaissance man. He was a physician, a theologian, an evangelist, and at times, a historian. Above all else, however, Luke was a storyteller: one of the best storytellers the world has ever known, and his skill is on full display in tonight’s Gospel lesson, the greatest story ever told.

Luke begins the Christmas story the way so many great stories begin, with political intrigue.  The powers-that-be in Rome had decided that it was once again time to raise taxes beyond their already crippling rate, and so they called for a census. Now, the Romans were as ruthless as they were smart. They knew that the best way to show their might it to treat people like they were nothing, and so, they put the onus of the census on their subjects, moving them around like pawns at their whim.  Every man was required to close his business, pack up his family, and travel to his ancestral hometown.  For Joseph, this meant he and his nine-months-pregnant wife, Mary, had to embark on an 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Under the best circumstances, this would have been a four-day trek.  Heaven only knows how long it would take with Mary great with child.

From political intrigue, Luke transitions to family drama.  As Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, word of Mary’s… condition… had preceded them.  Joseph’s kinfolk had done the math.  Mary is way too pregnant for how long they’ve been married.  One door after another is shut in Joseph’s face.  “Sorry, there is no room for you here.”  It was late, and Mary was beginning to feel the impending reality.  The baby is coming, and family dynamics or not, Mary needed a place to lie down so that she could have the baby in safety, and she needed to find it quickly.  Desperate, Joseph tried one last place, the inn on the edge of town.  This too was a non-starter, but out back, there was a barn.  It wasn’t much, but it would protect the young mother and her child from the elements.

Wisely, Luke skips over the details of the birth, but soon enough, we are witnesses to the child that Gabriel promised would be called the Son of the Most High who will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  Suddenly, the scene shifts, and we find ourselves well out of town with some shepherds gathered around an evening fire.  We might have quaint images of children in shepherd costumes tending their flocks by night, but Luke certainly did not.  In the first century, shepherds were universally despised; a necessary evil in a world that was still transitioning away from nomadic farming.  They were hired hands, sent off into the wilderness to tend the sheep of rich cattle owners.  They didn’t count as people, so they didn’t have to make the journey to their ancestral homes to be counted in the census.  Out for months at a time, doing who-knows-what in who-knows-where, shepherds were considered so unclean that most towns had laws forbidding them from entering the city gates.  It was a well-established belief that shepherds were dishonest cheats.  Way out there, nobody could know how many lambs were born each spring, and so, maybe they sold a few lambs each season to line their own pockets.[1]  Shepherds were considered so deceitful that they were not allowed to testify in court.

It is way out there, with the smelly, untrustworthy, not-even-qualified-to-be-called-a-person shepherds, that the Good News of Jesus’ birth is first made known.  Now, if you had been told your whole adult life that you were of no value and that God couldn’t even love you, when the darkness of the night was suddenly torn open with heavenly glory and an angel looked you square in the eyes, the proper response would certainly be one of fear.  Some might say terrified, but I prefer the King James Translation.  “They were sore afraid.”  This fear was something beyond what you might experience on the Tower of Terror ride at Hollywood Studios or the fear some might feel walking around the Nave all alone, late at night.  In the Greek, Luke, the great storyteller, writes that the shepherds “epho-batha-san phobon megan,” they “feared a mega fear.”

The angel, knowing as angels always do that a human’s initial reaction to them will be fear, quickly tries to calm the situation.  “Fear not!” the angel says, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  Again, turning to the Greek, we see the beauty of Luke’s storytelling skills, the angels tells the shepherds “euanggelion umin caran megalen,” literally, “I bring you good news of mega joy!”  God steps into the depths of mega fear, appearing to a crowd of shepherds who had been convinced they were worthless liars, and shares with them the good news of mega joy that on this night, in the city of David is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  It is to those who were never to be trusted that God entrusted the Good News.

Like I said, Luke is a phenomenal storyteller, but his greatest gift is including each of us in the story.  The good news of mega joy is given to the shepherds, but it is intended to be shared with all people, which, in case you were unsure, definitely includes you and me.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you too have what it takes to spread the Good News of great joy for all the people.  And so, tonight, despite whatever else we might have going on in our lives: no matter how mega the fear might be, how profound the sadness, how stressful the situation, we join with two thousand years of Christians in hearing the words of the angel, “Fear Not!”  And maybe, even just for a moment, we allow the mega joy to take hold, and join our voices to the heavenly chorus, shepherds, apostles, prophets, and martyrs in singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”  We join with two thousand years of Christians who have given thanks for the good news of mega joy that Jesus was born to give us hope and courage in the face of fear and sadness.

Luke’s ability to include us in this amazing story is what keeps Christmas relevant in a world that is increasingly suspicious of the religion that follows Jesus.  Seeking out hope in the midst of fear is something we can all understand, something we all desire. There is something universal about trying to set aside the frustrations of everyday life in order to have 24 hours of uninterrupted joy.  Christmas is the one time each year where everybody gets the chance to smile in the face of a thousand things that would cause you to frown.  To quote my favorite Christmas movie, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  Not gifts or lights or food or family, but the good news of mega joy that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into a world full of mega fear to save it.

Luke’s great story continues, with the shepherds running off to find the baby, and when they saw him, just as the angels had told them, they returned to the fields, with hearts full of joy, praising and glorifying God as they went.  Let’s follow in their example.  Christmas is here, my friends.  Thanks be to God!  Now, let’s get to celebrating the good news of mega joy for all people: Jesus Christ is born!  Amen.

[1] Thanks Frank Logue http://aplm2013.blogspot.ca/2013/12/preachers-study-christmas-2013.html

Merry Christmas

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve falling on the same day this year, there isn’t much time to switch gears.  This is true in the life of the parish.  The greenery is already hung, candles are in the windows, and the remote control for the battery powered pillars has been located.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but only beginning.  The poinsettias and magnolia won’t show up until after the morning services are complete.  The Christ candle, lit twice this season in celebration of the Resurrection of the Dead, won’t get lit until Sunday night.  The decorations have only begun, but we know there won’t be much time to make the transition.  The same it true for preachers.  I’m grateful for the blessing of a staff.  This means that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t be preaching Advent IV in the morning, Christmas Eve that night, and Christmas Day early the next morning.  While this blog has been focused on Advent IV, my exegetical life has been already focused on Christmas Eve.  This also means there isn’t much time to make the switch here either.  So, with apologies to the Advent Police, today, with the O Antiphons still on our lips, I take a moment to consider the joy that comes on Christmas.

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It seems that every Christmas, my interest is drawn to the same place.  Having twice been in a labor and delivery room, I’m not real interested in hanging out with Mary and her midwife for the delivery of the Christ child.  Instead, since it isn’t my child, I’ll act like a 1950s dad and hang out on the greens.  I’m always glad for the shepherds in the Christmas story.  I’m grateful that it is to them that the Good News of Great Joy is first delivered.  There, out on the margins, is where the heavenly hosts arrive to sing praise to the God of our salvation.

Nobody liked shepherds.  They were a necessary evil in a world still transitioning from nomadic farming.  They were smelly and suspect in character.  They were not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I too might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you, dear reader, have what it takes to spread the Good News of Great Joy for all the people.

As you make the quick transition from Advent to Christmas this year, my prayers are with you.  May God bless you with the words necessary to share the unbelievable joy that comes in a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas, dear reader, I will see you in the new year.

The Most Joyful Thing Ever – a Christmas sermon

The audio recording of my Christmas Eve sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Can I let you in on a little secret?  Just between you and me, I really don’t like the hymn Silent Night.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I don’t really like the hymn Silent Night the way it normally gets sung in Episcopal Churches.  Y’know, like a funeral dirge?  In the parish I grew up in, both Christmas Eve services ended with the whole congregation singing Silent Night.  Everybody would kneel, the lights would dim, and the organist would plod through it like we were marching to to Jesus’ tomb on Good Friday.  Do you know what Silent Night is supposed to be about?  Do you know what Christmas is supposed to be about?  The most joyful thing that has ever happened in the history of the world, ever!  Christmas is about God’s light shining in the darkness, no matter what.

When the Son of God came to the earth, it was a pretty dark time to be a Jew.  Certainly, there have been worse times: the Holocaust, the company Exile in Babylon, the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, but when the Romans are occupying your land and next door to the great Temple of God, have built a palace for the Governor that stands just a few inches taller than your most sacred building, just because they can, things aren’t exactly great.  Luke wants us to understand just how difficult life is under Roman rule, and so he sets the scene for us.  The Emperor Augustus had declared that the whole world should be counted and taxed.  In order to do so, and just because he could do such things, Augustus decided that everyone should have to return to their ancestral hometown.  Such was the power of Rome.  They could pretty much tell you to do anything, and you had to do it.  And so because the Emperor said so, young Mary, great with a child who happened to be the Son of God, joined her new husband, Joseph, on the 100-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Upon reaching Joseph’s family’s hometown, Luke tells us that there wasn’t room for them.  Whether there was no room in the inn because there were just too many decedents of David in for the census, or there was just too much discomfort with the fact that Joseph and Mary hadn’t been married long enough for her to be that pregnant, we will never know.  Either way, the nights that they had to share a barn floor with sheep, goats, and whatever other critters might be living in the hay-lined bed, must have been really, really dark.  Physically dark.  Emotionally dark.  Probably even spiritually dark.  And then, to add injury to insult, the time came for Mary to give birth, and her first born Son, a gift from God for the whole world, was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, a fancy word for a feed trough.

Perhaps the only place darker than the barn where the holy family was staying was the field where the shepherds watched their flocks by night.  The shepherds didn’t have to make the journey to be counted and taxed because they didn’t really count as people.  Women and shepherds were the two types of people not allowed to testify in court.  Shepherds were considered so unclean, that most towns had laws forbidding them from entering the city gates.  In the black of the night, the shepherds faithfully attended to their thankless job when suddenly, the sky was as bright as the noonday.  In the darkest of the darkest places, the glory of the Lord shone bright.  An angel had come to share good news of great joy for all people, that a Savior had been born; that love’s pure light was entering into the darkness of life.

Just as quickly as the night shone bright, it was dark again, and the shepherds, still trembling with a mixture of fear and excitement, decided to run to find the baby, saying to each other, “let’s go see if any of this is true.”  Leaving their flocks behind, they ran, down the hill, through the gates they probably weren’t allowed to enter, and searched the city streets for the barn where they can find the babe, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.  They search, and they scoured, and finally they saw the Christ child, just as the angels had predicted.  They saw with their eyes, and the word Luke uses seems to also mean that in seeing, they believed.  The Shepherds, experienced something amazing in the fields, and they came to Bethlehem to experience the Good News for themselves.  With their own eyes, they saw the Good News for all people, a Savior born for all humanity, the love of God made human flesh, and with joy in their hearts, they returned to the fields glorifying, singing, and praising God.

The message of Christmas is that God loves us so completely that he enters into the darkest places with the light of his love.  This is the best news of all time, which makes the story of the first Christmas the most joyful thing that has ever happened in the history of the world, ever.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another night that God considered deserving of an angel choir.  Christmas is the singularly most joy-filled day of the year, which is why I think, when we get to it, we ought to sing Silent Night standing up, in the blazing brightness of the light of God’s radiant glory, with all the joy we can muster.  Joseph Mohr, the author of Silent Night, knew the joy of Christmas, and wrote it into his song of praise.  He wrote of the brightness of God shining in the darkness, the glory of the Lord streaming from heaven, the angel choir singing alleluia; all because Christ, the Savior is born.  Franz Gruber, who wrote the tune for Silent Night, also knew the joy of Christmas.  He took Mohr’s words of hope and composed a melody in D-Major, the so-called Key of Triumph and Alleluias, for the guitar, in a dance-like 6/8 time signature.[1]  We have an Episcopal Priest, John Freeman Young, to blame for the B minor lullaby that we know hear every Christmas.  The reality is that Silent Night is a song of glory and praise, the likes of which I imagine the shepherds sang as they left the manger side that first Christmas night.

I know that the world is still a dark place most of the time.  There is sadness.  There is fear.  There is anguish all around.  But this is not new, and if God’s pure love could shine brightly on that first Christmas night, then there is no reason why the Good News of Jesus Christ can’t continue to shine in the midst of our self-made darkness.  There is no reason why the annual singing of Silent Night can’t be an opportunity to share the Good News of Christmas: that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be born in human flesh; to come to know our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, our life and even our death that we might know God more fully.  Silent Night tells the story of joy for all people, that no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter whom you love, God’s redeeming grace is available for you.

Let’s sing out with joy this year.  Let’s blow the roof of this place.  Let’s join with the heavenly hosts and sing alleluia, glory, and praise on this most joyful night, giving thanks that in Jesus, God shows us that he loves us more than we can ever know.  Christ, the Savor is born dear friends, and it is a Merry Christmas indeed!  Amen.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night

The Shepherds Saw and Knew

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The Lectionary splits up Luke’s birth narrative so that part one can be read on Christmas Eve and, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story can be heard on Christmas morning.  The reality for most congregations is that there will be distinct audiences at each of the Christmas Eve/Day services, so it would behoove the preacher to bite the bullet and read Luke 2:1-20 every time the faithful come together between sunset on December 24th and sunrise December 26th.

If you read the whole thing on Christmas Eve, presumably where the biggest crowds are to be found, then your audience will have the opportunity to hear the story of the first ever response to Christian evangelism.  The angel of the Lord, having told them the Good News, literally – the Gospel, departs from the scene and the shepherds, still very much unsure of what just happened, look at each other and basically say, “let’s go see if any of this is true.”  After running down the hill and into the city proper, they find the babe, wrapped in swaddling cloth, and lying in a manger.  They saw it just as the angels had predicted.

I was initially drawn to the way in which they traveled to down: “with haste,” but as I dug into the Greek, what I found more interesting was the word Luke used to describe both their desire to see and what they saw.  Eido isn’t the passive sort of seeing in which a spectator might engage, but it carries the double meaning of both seeing and knowing.  The Shepherds, having just experienced something amazing in the fields, desire to see and to know the Good News for themselves.  It is only after they see, and presumably come to know the truth of the angels message, that, with awe, they share the story with Mary and Joseph.

As Christmas comes again this year, my prayer is that you might see and know the good news that God has sent for all people, that in the city of David was born for us a Savior who redeems the world and sets us free to seek after the will of the Father.  Merry Christmas!

What Diffrence Does Christmas Make?

The folks over at Sparkhouse are really good at making engaging videos.  This year, as a Christmas gift, they’ve offered their rendition of the Christmas story, as seen above, for free use by congregations.  I think this video is fun and uses the experience of the shepherds to offer us the opportunity to really think about the question, “What difference does Christmas make?”

While Luke works hard to answer that question for us in his account of the birth of Jesus, I think the answer comes some seven or eight hundred years before Jesus’ birth in the words of the prophet, Isaiah.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.”

You might notice a theme in my Christmas blog posts this year, but the motif of light and dark are running through my mind as I prepare to preach the Good News of Great Joy for All People on a dreary, soggy, blah Christmas week.  The weather outside is frightful, but the light of the Gospel is so delightful, and I can’t help but wonder, are we able to see just how good the Good News of Jesus’ birth really is?

Or has it become so domesticated, so familiar, that we can’t see how profound an impact this light shining in the darkness had and continues to have?  Isaiah is preaching to a people staring down the sharp point of the arrows of Babylon.  The angels proclaim their glad tidings to shepherds who are the outcast of the outcast: in many towns, they are barred from entering the city gates because of the stigma of their job.  We who gather to worship a God who loved us so much that he gave up everything to be born a totally dependent baby in a backwater town to soon to be refugee parents is, by any rational standard, ridiculously stupid, and yet, it is what makes Christmas so very special.

God loves us so much that he left the light of heaven to enter the darkness of our broken humanity.  He did so in a manager in Bethlehem 2,000+/- years ago, and he continues to do so, every moment of every day, through disciples who choose to live in the hope of the light rather than the despair of the darkness.  We, like the Israelites to whom Isaiah spoke, walk in darkness, but on us and on all humanity, a light has shined.”  This Christmas, I pray that your eyes will be open to see the light, and to recognize the difference that Christmas makes.

Light in the Darkness

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One of the benefits of being a country parson is living far away from the glowing lights that disrupt seeing the beauty of the night sky.  I mean, my neighborhood is full of street lights, but it isn’t too far a drive to be in the middle of no where with only the Milky Way and the Moon shining brightly overhead.  It is a similar scene that the shepherds find themselves in.  Night after night they watch over their flocks in the darkness with only the moon and the stars to offer light in the darkness.

It is no wonder then, that they are terrified, literally fearing a mega fear, when one evening the darkness of the night turned into the brightness of the day.  Luke tells us that “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” or as the New Living Translation puts it, “the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them.”

Scriptures tells us, on more than one occasion, that one of the promises of God’s future reign is that the sun and moon will no longer be necessary.  Instead of outside sources of light, it is the glory of the Lord that will help us to see. It is through the radiance of God that we will one day be able to see the world as God intended it to be. The shepherds got a glimpse of that world, and understandably, were filled with fear. Forty days later, Simeon will hold the baby Jesus and announce, with great joy, that the light to enlighten the nations had come.

The world is, of course, still filled with darkness, but the gift of Christmas, at least one them, is that the light of the world is shining in the darkness.  Even when it seems totally dark, and lately it has sort of felt that way what with ISIS, mass shootings, and the sinking level of political discourse, there is a light shining in the darkness: a savior who is Christ the Lord.