12/29/2013 Sermon: “God with Us – In the Real World”

Massacre of the Innocents - Giotto di Bondone (1305)
Massacre of the Innocents – Giotto di Bondone (1305)

Matthew 2:13-23.  Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.* 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ 

I don’t remember the first time I heard that gospel story about Herod killing the children, but I know it must have been when I was very young.  It’s really a disturbing image and I can remember it bothering me as a child.  Maybe it bothers you.  Maybe you can accept that it’s in the bible and therefore acceptable as a worship service reading, but it’s still troublesome.  It happened during the early childhood of Jesus, so it’s obviously connected to the Christmas story.  But it’s not a picture you’d see on any Christmas cards.  And it’s really not even an antique story. You don’t have to look far to find a story about some evil thing happening to the most vulnerable people in our world.  Jesus came to a real world with real evil in it.  Jesus came to the real life you and I share.  Jesus came to save us in the midst of a reality that hasn’t changed much.

The story of what is traditionally called “the massacre of the innocents” is an illustration of how evil human beings can be – right up there with September 11 or any of the other senseless murders that have happened in the last 15 years or so.  The incident in Sandy Hook, CT, last year comes close.  At that time, we hadn’t quite moved out of Connecticut, where it was called “the unspeakable thing.”  That is the world Christ came to as a child – a world that was trying to kill him right from the start.  Even on a less violent level, Christmas is actually a very difficult time for many people.  Cards and presents and holiday food and carol-singing aside, life is difficult, and it’s that difficult life Jesus came to.  Sometimes we forget, that’s the same world the church lives in.  Here’s a story of real life:

Just a few Christmas Eves ago, pastor Thomas Tewell was preparing to lead worship at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. As he was about to enter the sanctuary, he ran into a church member who looked terribly discouraged. Tewell knew that the man had suffered from a drinking problem and had been on the wagon for a few months; what he didn’t know before that night was how lonely and depressed the man was feeling at Christmastime.

Gazing out over the sanctuary, the man said, “Look at all these happy families. If I hadn’t messed up so badly, I’d still have a family, too. I’m going to get out of here and go have a drink.”

With just a minute to go before the Christmas Eve service, there was no time for a counseling session. So, thinking fast, Tewell ushered the man into a nearby room and then walked to the front of the sanctuary to make an announcement.

“Friends,” he said to the congregation, “we’re going to start worship in just a minute. But first I need to ask, ‘Are there any friends of Bill W. here?'” Tewell knew that Bill W. was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and that any recovering alcoholic would consider himself or herself a friend of Bill W.

He went on to say to the gathered crowd, “There is a man here who is feeling very discouraged, and could use the support of a friend. If you could offer some help, please come with me now.”

First, a woman got up. Then a man. Then another and another and another. Tewell had no idea that he had so many recovering alcoholics in his congregation! Soon, a whole crowd had gathered in the room by the sanctuary, and they spent that Christmas Eve offering lifesaving support to a brother who was struggling with his desire to drink.

Tewell says that there was hardly anyone left in the sanctuary for the worship service. But he knew that sometimes we need a fellow sufferer to lead us on the path to salvation.  (source: www.homileticsonline.com, December 30, 2001)

The Christmas cards on our mantels and in our mailboxes give us the impression that Jesus is somehow removed from the darker side of things, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The prophet Isaiah gave him the name Emmanuel, which means God with us – in real life.

Not long ago, I read a story about a mother who gave her children a nativity set and came back a while later to find that the stable was filled with GI Joe men and surrounded by tanks.  That was supposed to be funny, and it is, but it’s really not far from the truth.

Herod the Great.  Matthew is the only gospel with the story about King Herod trying to kill Jesus.  It gives just a brief picture of Herod.  Rome had an occupying army in Palestine, and Herod was appointed the King of Palestine by Rome about thirty years before Jesus was born.  And Herod was just the kind of king the Roman Caesars liked.  He built great buildings and kept the people in line; he kept the people too poor to fight back.  He was called Herod the Great – by the Romans – but the common people in Palestine didn’t think he was so great – they hated him.

The secular historians who wrote about Herod don’t include the stories from Matthew we read today, possibly because they were not unusual for that time.  Murdering the infants around Bethlehem would have been typical of Herod.  He murdered three of his own sons and one of his wives.  In his will, since he knew he would not be missed, he ordered that at his death everyone in a certain town should be killed, so that at least someone would be weeping.  The order was not carried out.  Caesar Augustus was supposed to have said, that since everybody knew that Jews don’t eat pork, “I would rather be Herod’s swine than his son.”

Massacre of the Innocents - Cogniet
Massacre of the Innocents – Leon Cogniet (1830)

We like to think of the birth of Jesus as kind of pastoral and quaint, in a cozy stable with shepherds and clean farm animals all around.  At least one drummer boy.  In reality, Jesus was born in a very dangerous time and place.  God did not take the evil out of this world to make Jesus’ life easier. God doesn’t take the evil away from our lives either.  God comes to the real world – with real people in it, like you and me.  And God walks with us as we make our choices.

We learn to rely on God to help us deal with the evil; to help us make hard choices, to pick us up when we fall, to help us forgive people who are hard to forgive, to move on, to see the larger picture, to do the right thing.  To be faithful when we are out of our comfort zone, when we are displaced and things are not going “according to plan.”

When you visit the Holy Land, you come away with an awareness of how close together everything seems.  Probably, some of the shepherds who came to the stable on Christmas night lived near Bethlehem.  It could be that Herod’s soldiers killed some of their children, and they had to turn to God to help them cope.  Right after the joy of finding Jesus.

In spite of Herod, God gave Israel a Messiah.  In spite of how things might have appeared, God had things under control, and relied on certain people to have faith.  And this is still true.  God depends on people like you and me. God depends on us being able to say yes – to say yes when things aren’t easy or convenient.  God depends on us to say yes when things look bleak.

Think about Joseph for a moment.  Here he is in Bethlehem with Mary, and she’s just had a baby that’s not his.  Not only that, he can’t go back to his hometown because of Herod.  He can’t go back to his family or his work.  He and his family are refugees.  After this story, Joseph is never mentioned again; he probably died when Jesus was young, but so much in this gospel depends on him.  God relied on Mary to have the baby; but God needed Joseph to be patient and understanding, and faithful in an inconvenient and dangerous situation.

In Matthew’s gospel, when Mary becomes pregnant, it’s Joseph who knows why and tells her.  In Luke, God does a public broadcast through angels to the shepherds.  But in the first two chapters of Matthew, God speaks in four dreams – speaks very quietly, very privately – to announce the birth of Jesus.  One of those dreams came to the wise men.  The other three came to Joseph.

Joseph knew how to listen to God.  His ability to listen to God didn’t have to do with being self-disciplined or even being a good person.  He had an open mind and a willingness to do what he knew God wanted him to do.  He seemed to have a sense of his place in God’s plan.  His mind was open to God speaking to him in dreams.  Good thing he never woke up and said, “Whoa!  Good thing that was only a dream.”  Caring for God’s son was his own personal inconvenient, dangerous truth.

For us it raises some questions: Do we know how to listen to God? Is it possible to know how?  Do you hear God speaking when you read or hear the bible, or when you pray?  In a conversation with a friend?  When you read the paper?  Listen to the radio, or watch TV?  Maybe the real question is, can you do the right thing, the inconvenient thing God needs you to do?  Can our church do the inconvenient thing God wants us to do.  Can we step outside of our box?

It seems to me that there are so many places and situations where God needs Christians. Needs followers, needs people willing to allow their faith to influence the way they live.  Sometimes right in our own houses. Sometimes on the other side of the world.  There are a lot of chain-reactions in the kingdom of God, and many of them begin with you and me.

Life can be discouraging, but there are many good things happening and I believe, many good things to come.  Along the way, there is evil to fight – and choices to make.  And in this new year, God depends on you and me.  God will give us dreams, and I believe that through us, God will make a difference.


O God, give us dreams; help us see visions of the things that could be.  Give us great ideas that point people toward you.  Help us be the research and development department for your kingdom, and for your church here in Madison.  Fill us with your Spirit and give us the self-discipline to go where you need us most.

Give us strength to be your people in this new year.  We will do our part to fight evil and injustice – and miracles will happen because we follow and trust in you.  We pray in the name of your son Jesus, whose birth we celebrate.  Amen.

12/22/2013 Sermon: “Enter the Hero”

Baby's Hand 2 - LTP
photo by Loryn Pinney

Matthew 1:18-25.  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 

24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Have you heard that story before?  I’m sure you’ve heard that passage from Matthew before – the story about the birth of Jesus.  Did you know that there are two birth stories in the Bible and they aren’t the same?  Luke tells about shepherds and there being no room in the inn.  Matthew is the story with the three kings and the escape to Egypt of Joseph and Mary and Jesus.  In Luke, an angel comes to Mary with a message from God. In Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph in dreams and he has to tell Mary what’s going on.  These aren’t conflicts; Matthew and Luke just tell the story differently.

We all have a mental image of the Christmas story – a kind of warm Christmas card image implanted in our minds.  For most of us, our earliest memories include some form of this story, and some image.  It’s a soft image with a kind of primitive maternity ward feeling.  The stable, the new parents, the shepherds, maybe a few animals, all in the soft glow of candles or oil lamps.  Maybe the glow is coming from the manger.  Or maybe there’s a  spotlight coming from the star overhead.  Ahhh.

But when you read the story carefully, especially in Matthew, it has an action-adventure quality and it’s pretty rough.  Good is in a life-and-death struggle with evil.  The future of the world and the survival of humanity are in doubt.  There is chaos and tension everywhere. Violence, evil kings, helpless peasants. When things seem most hopeless, God sends the hero in the form of the most unlikely kind of person:  a baby.  And the way God saves us, is to become one of us, including becoming a baby. The God of the universe becomes a human being, and in that baby, God is giving the world, giving you and me another chance at life.

There is an ancient prophecy –  “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  (Isaiah 7:14)

All the elements of an action-adventure movie, right?  It’s a theme in movies that keeps popping up, especially when times are hard:  Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Avatar. The Hobbit movies. Good overcomes evil.  That’s evil with a capital E.  The evil is strong beyond measure, and ruthless – the hero is the most defenseless, unlikely person in the story (the hero needs to be somebody you and I can relate to).

About 60-70 years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis both wrote action adventure stories.  They both wrote their stories from the perspective of their Christian faith.  Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings.”  Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia.”  In the Chronicles of Narnia, the vulnerable heroes are children.  In the “Lord of the Rings,” the vulnerable heroes are smallish beings called hobbits.

The story of the birth of Jesus has been told in movie form many years.  Maybe you saw “The Nativity” when it came out in 2006:


Some of the details are a bit over-fictionalized, but it has all the ingredients, right?  In the Christmas story, the hero is as helpless as anybody can possibly be.  The hero is a baby.  The evil is as powerful as anything we could know.  The evil isn’t just in the form of a bad king named Herod in Palestine 2000 years ago; the evil is the sin in all humans, including us.  God gives us the story – gives us Jesus, so that in our lives – in our own real lives – the power of God is beyond anything we can imagine.  If we believe, we will overcome.  When everything seems dark, there is hope.

Don’t you have these moments when everything seems hopeless and you’ve lost control?  The point of the Christmas story is that we have real life hero, right now.  Just tell him you believe.  It’s a great story, and it’s true!

Put yourself in the shoes of Joseph for a moment.  He’s not just a nice guy; he’s a faithful person who trusts God; he is committed to doing the right thing, committed to playing by the rules and living by the Laws of God. What’s the Jewish law?  What’s the punishment for adultery?  in cases like these? Capital punishment. It’s black and white: You are to stone the woman to death, and “purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:23-27).

So, Joseph wrestles with all this. In the “Lord of the Rings,”  and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” there are huge battles between armies of good guys and really ugly bad guys (demons).  But Joseph’s battle is inside his head and heart, which is where most of our battles take place.  He’s angry.  And after walking through his own dark valley, because he loves Mary, he decides on a more compassionate way. Instead of calling for a stoning or causing her a public humiliation, Joseph decides to show mercy to Mary and give her a quiet divorce.

Remember this the next time you have a chance to crush someone who has hurt you. Joseph decides to let go of his anger and turn away from revenge.  He lets his faith take control.  It may take him a while to feel this way, but he decides that compassion is the better choice.

He struggles; he really suffers over what to do.  God doesn’t do anything right away.  Some time goes by.  That’s when the angel comes in a dream, who tells him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (vv. 20-21).

The name Jesus (or Joshua) means savior.  It means the “One who saves”.  The name Emmanuel means “God with us.”  Did you get that?  God isn’t on a movie screen or in the pages of a book.  God is with us! The gift of God’s presence is the ultimate, perfect gift that heals the wounds and fills the deepest needs of our hearts.  He fights the battle with evil for us – if we let him.  He is the higher power we all need on our side – and in our lives.  He is the peace we all need.  He is the one who can say to a raging storm, “Peace, be still.”  And it happens.  The presence of Christ is stronger than the most powerful evil.

“The Miracle” by Bill Richer  (Note: This story has appeared in numerous devotionals, sermon websites, etc.  If you know it’s original source, let me know too!  revjcn@gmail.org)

          [In 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was at its height. A German cook who was with the German Army had taken his wife and this little boy with him, and while the battle was raging, he hid them  in a shack way in the woods, seemingly from harm’s way.  This story is told by the little boy many years later.]

It was December 24th, Christmas Eve and it was a very cold night. Many soldiers on both sides became lost from their units and were looking for a place to stay. Three American Soldiers were lost around the area where the shack was. They saw the light from the shack and the smoke from the chimney. They saw their chance to warm up. They knocked on the door and asked if they could come in. The German lady had a small chicken cooking for themselves but invited the Americans in to warm up and for the Christmas meal.

One of the American Soldiers was wounded and the lady tried to make him comfortable. There was a language barrier for a time till one of the soldiers found out the lady could speak French as well as German! So everything was going well and the Americans were feeling right at home!

Then suddenly there was a knock at the door. The American’s went for their guns. The lady went to the door and answered it. There were four German soldiers who were lost from their unit and they asked the lady for shelter. The lady answered them with this, “Yes, you can come in for Christmas dinner but I have other guests.” One German soldier remarked, “Americana.” She said, “yes and that this was Christmas and there would be no killing on this night.”

She also told the Germans that they would have to lay down their weapons while they came in. She instructed the Americans to do the same!

There they were all in the room together, soldiers who a little while ago were bent on killing each other. Now, they were in a room together with no weapons. Everyone could feel the tension in the air. It was so quiet for about ten minutes. Then one American soldier offered the Germans a cigarette. They obliged! Suddenly one of the Germans who had medical training asked about the wounded American. He then began to help the wounded American and made him as comfortable as he could be.

Suddenly, Christmas dinner was ready and before they ate the lady had a speech for them. She told them that war was wrong and told them the beauty of Christmas day and what it all meant. (Of course she said in German to the Germans and French to the Americans). All the soldiers had tears in the eyes, even the tough German Sergeant. So with that they ate and from an uneasy friendship was built a genuine friendship in Christ that night. Later on the soldiers all sang Silent Night in their own native tongues.

So later on the former enemies all went to sleep under the same roof. In the morning the Germans built a stretcher for the wounded American and even gave directions to the Americans on how to get back to their lines. The Germans took the lady and her son back to the German lines to bring them to her husband.

So, for one night in a great battle, Christ’s peace was in the hearts of these nine people.

After the toys are broken, or we’re bored, and we’re hurt, or we can sense the emptiness, maybe then we can see the need we’ve always had.  This is the gift we’ve always wanted – sometimes without even knowing it consciously. God is with us.  And that’s what we needed most: God with us.

Some families have a tradition of opening one Christmas present early, usually on Christmas Eve.  Well, this is one present that you’re allowed to open early.  This might be the best gift you’ve ever received.  It’s knowing for yourself, deep within, that in your struggle with evil, you are not alone; Jesus came to save you– and God is with us all!  We have a hero, and he is real.


Through that baby, O God, all things are changed: proud people are made humble, the powerful become weak, the weak become strong, the rich learn that they are really poor, the poor learn that God is their friend. Our relationship with you opens our eyes to who you are, and who we are, and the world as you see it: a world full of people who need you.

You gave us the perfect gift, God.  Help us to give you our hearts and our lives.  Thank you for being with us in our struggles, in our personal battles with evil.  Live in us and through us in a way that makes every day Christmas, and it’s clear to those who know us that you are our Savior and God is truly with us.  Amen.

12/15/2013 Sermon: “Stable Time”

"Visitation" Roger van der Weyden (c. 1445)
“Visitation” – Roger van der Weyden (c. 1445)

Luke 1:39-55.  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 

46 And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,  
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,  
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. 
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
   and holy is his name.  
50 His mercy is for those who fear him 
   from generation to generation.  
51 He has shown strength with his arm; 
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 
   and lifted up the lowly;  
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, 
   and sent the rich away empty.  
54 He has helped his servant Israel, 
   in remembrance of his mercy,  
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, 
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ 

DSC_0464So, yesterday, we had a snowstorm that arrived about 12 hours after it was supposed to arrive.  People had been cancelling events and changing their travel plans since the day before.  Then the snow came  and it seems to me, that at least a few people were asking themselves, “If we can live anywhere in the world, why are we here?  It’s cold; it’s unsafe to walk or drive around.”  But the thing is, the weather people got it “wrong.”  We were lured into thinking it would snow.  Then it didn’t.  Then it snowed at the wrong time.

And as I was reading the scripture for today, it occurred to me that God loves inconvenience.  God’s best work happens when we think life is just all wrong, then choose to let go and trust what God does.

And now for something completely different!  Waltz music begins playing… 

Vienna hotel

Do you know what this is?  It’s a Strauss waltz: “The Blue Danube.”

Kathy and I made a trip to the Holy Land some years ago and the connecting flight took us through Vienna, Austria.  We thought to ourselves, we’ve never been to Vienna – let’s visit!  We stayed in a fancy old Victorian hotel that was cheap in the off-season.  One day, we got lost one day in the hotel, wandering up and down hallways, and ended up in a big ballroom.  We just stood there awestruck.  Huge chandeliers, mirrors in the walls, ornate carvings in the woodwork, marble dance-floor. In your mind you could see ladies in silk dresses swirling around and men in tuxes and uniforms with sashes across their chests.  I imagine it was one of those places Strauss first conducted his waltzes, and in your mind you could hear it.  It was just like one of those scenes out of an old Disney movie.

Is there anyone here who knows how to waltz?  Step-2-3.  Step-2-3.   Even those of us who don’t have an ear for music can recognize the sound of a waltz. It’s the beat. ¾ time – three beats to a measure.  It’s supposed to make you move – to make you dance, or at least sway back and forth in your seat.  In the 19th century, if you knew how to waltz, you were cool.

But what makes a waltz a waltz is also what makes a waltz a pretty boring piece of music. Yeah, it’s romantic.  You imagine yourself dancing in a ballroom.   And that’s about it.  How long will you feel like keeping that up?  You’re stuck in the ballroom.  You always know what you’re going to do next.  Step-2-3.  Step-2-3.  It’s hypnotic.  It’s waltz time.  It’s fantasy.

But, stepping outside, turning off the music, what do you hear?  Silence, traffic, snow plows, the sound of your own thoughts.  Before you came here, you probably followed your own routine, getting up, making coffee, taking a shower, getting dressed.  But then, there was a snowstorm, and that changes things.  Most of life is not like a waltz.  Life is not operating in a regular beat; much of life is not predictable, like a waltz.  Most of life does not take place in a fancy, upscale ballroom.

“Stable time” is when the unpredictable is happening.  That’s when God comes – at the time when nobody was expecting, to people we never would have thought of, doing the thing nobody thought was possible.  In a place that could not have been more messy and inconvenient.

stable DSC00749

Mary never would have guessed that she would be giving birth in a stable.  In fact, she never expected to be pregnant until after she was married.

The gospel reading is a story of new mothers, and both Elizabeth and Mary find they are both caught in the unpredictable. These stable times have to do with unexpected pregnancy – one of the most stressful things that can happen in a family.

Elizabeth and Mary are relatives, maybe cousins.  Elizabeth is far beyond normal child-bearing age, and she is pregnant with her first child. So she’s feeling a mix of  joy and anxiety. We don’t know how old Elizabeth was, but since life-expectancy was a lot shorter then, she might have only been in her thirties.  Suddenly in her “old age” Elizabeth was going to take on all the responsibility of being a mother. She’d had accepted that she would not be having children; she must have been stressed.

But Mary’s situation has stress wrapped all around it.  Pregnant in a small town.  Unmarried.  Her fiancé is upset and confused, tempted to bail.  Until the angel told her what was going to happen, her life had been totally normal. Predictable. In “The Nativity,” the movie that came out a couple of years ago, everyone in the village is whispering.  Joseph loses work from his carpentry business because of the scandal.  The only thing that keeps them together is the knowledge they have between them– that God is doing something amazing, and they are part of it.

But look at how these people respond.  Once they get what’s going on, Elizabeth says to Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” (v. 45)

Elizabeth and Mary (and Joseph) open themselves completely to God and what God is doing in their lives.  When Mary and Elizabeth come together, there is joy. God is praised.  There is faith.  Even though they probably can’t talk about it much, and probably, only they understand what’s going on.  Elizabeth feels the baby move and suddenly understands Mary is going to be the mother of God.

Mary turns to Elizabeth and says one of the most beautiful prayers we have in the bible. We call it the “Magnificat,” and it comes as a response to an overwhelming situation given to a young girl. God takes a simple, young peasant woman and looks “with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” and lifts her up. Mary becomes “blessed … among women” — because she refuses to panic and responds to this “stable” moment in her life with faith and trust instead.  “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  (1:47-48)

God is about to give a gift that will change the world, and these two mothers know.  God will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. They believe, before God has given anybody else anything – or anybody – to believe in.

Remember the ballroom?  Now that’s some contrast, between a ballroom and a stable.  In the ballroom, everything is beautiful, happens in order, according to the rhythm, …and it’s fantasy.

Jesus was born in a stable — a small, cramped, messy place.  We’re so used to seeing it on Christmas cards, we think it’s normal.  But can you imagine that?  Most of us have at least visited farms.  You know what it smells like, what it looks like, what you’re stepping in sometimes.  But the mess is the message of Christmas: There is no stable, no place in our world or in our lives that is too poor, too remote, too outcast, too “other,” too messy, that God cannot be found. And with faith, it’s in those places God makes us strong and turns us into people who change the world.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that God can’t come into your life, into your heart, just because your schedule seems “too busy” for Christmas. If you’re close to “overload,” you could be on the very edge of a “stable time” in your life.  That time when you have no other choice than to let God take control.  You weren’t expecting it.  But you know you need it.  And it’s a gift from God.  Open up to it, be willing to let the Spirit of God “do great things for you.”

Christmas is really about a very basic thing.  God is with us.  And just that simple fact can make all the difference.

Carved nativity familyWhen you go to the Holy Land, it’s impossible to come back without a Nativity set.  Sure, you already have at least a half-dozen, but you’re there, in the place where it happened.

Some tourists to the Holy Land bought a wooden nativity set in Bethlehem. As they were walking through the airport to board their flight to return to the United States, the security guard asked them to unpack the box. He pulled out the figures of the wise men, the shepherds, Mary, Joseph and the baby. The security guard said, “I’m very sorry, but I have to check each of these individually through the X-ray.” The tourists asked, “Why? It’s a just a wooden nativity set!” To which the security guard replied, “Ah, these figures could contain explosives.” And you know what? This is true.  The power of faith in Christ – God with us – could change everything. It’s explosive! With Jesus leading us, God calls us now to “lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things.”  We will never be the same.


God, help us make our hearts a warm and welcoming place, where we receive your son with faith. In the middle of our messy, confusing lives, create a quiet place of a place of peace in each of us, where we can keep these holidays as the holy days they were meant to be. With the power of Jesus living in us, help us lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things.  Give us your eyes to see them clearly.

Through your Spirit, give us the skill to cope with the unpredictable, and the knowledge that our lives are in your strong hands.  You sent your son not with ribbons and wrappings, but with power to change our lives.  We thank you for him and pray in his name.  Amen.

12/1/2013 Sermon: “Finding Your Inner Blacksmith”

Blacksmith 1Isaiah 2:1-5.  The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. 
   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more. 

Romans 13:11-14. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

20131201_170749This sword has been in the house where I lived for my entire life.  It was my grandfather’s, and we’ve had it with us wherever we’ve lived.  Before the Boy Scouts were started, in our town in Ohio, he was in a kind of student cadet militia as a teenager and wore this sword in parades.  This was a little over 100 years ago.  I understand that this type of sword has been around since Civil War days and must have been a fairly common thing; I’ve seen them in other people’s houses.  It was a tradition in our house to wear it on Halloween, dressed up as a knight, so it’s a little beat up.  It’s a dress sword and has no edge to it.  It has never been used in war and it wouldn’t make a very good weapon.  It’s symbolic, meant to give an impression of power.

With a sword, you either attack someone, or you defend yourself from someone with another sword (and hope they don’t have gun!).  But this sword can’t do either of those things very well; it can only represent that kind of power.  This is the sort of sword people walk under at weddings and beauty pageants.  My grandfather and his friends weren’t exactly dangerous characters! (below)

Medina Cadets
The Medina (OH) Cadets, c. 1906 – teenage forerunners of the Boy Scouts. Note the dress swords and rifles (right). My grandfather, Floyd Nichols, is second from the right.

I’m not sure that kids today would know what this thing is if it weren’t for movies or Saturday morning cartoons.  But if they had never seen a sword used in a cartoon or movie, this is what they might think it was for: sometimes I use it to get cobwebs out of the corners of the house.  So, in our house, this sword has a different use now than it did at the beginning of the last century.  It could be that some day, kids will point to this and say, “What’s that?”  It could be that some day, mothers will point to this symbolic weapon and say, “Dear, that’s an antique cobweb picker.”

I think it was John Adams who said, “I learn war so that my children can learn government, and my grandchildren can learn music and painting.”  God wishes that day would come sooner rather than later.  God wants to make things new – right now; God wants to give everyone a fresh start.  When God comes into our lives, God changes things; God changes even the worst parts of human nature when we have faith.  And there is a lot to change.  Only God can do this.

Since moving to the Manheim (PA) area, we’ve learned something interesting.  In the process of moving, we’ve gone without cable television since the beginning of this year (2013). Just lately, we’ve gotten it back in a very minimal way, and I can’t help but notice that the programming has gotten more violent than I remember.  Television is a business and business is supported by our culture, and culture is a reflection of who we are.

You know how some large stores have decided to stay open on Thanksgiving Day?  “In Rialto, Calif., a police officer was injured trying to defuse tensions in the parking lot of a Walmart over shoppers said to be cutting in line. The incident happened around 7 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving. At least three people were involved in the fight and two were taken into custody…” (USA Today website, 11/29).  That came from a long list of news stories just like it.

This is not new to you.  We have this battle inside of us:  a deep desire for peace, and all that means, but an impulsive inclination toward violent thinking that sometimes leads toward violent actions.  And we’re all vulnerable.  This is an old story.  Cain was jealous toward Abel, and maybe you remember how that went. We all have that seed in us, that little pilot light of selfish anger that can turn into a huge consuming flame.

But the prophets always point out that no matter how awful life seems to get, there is always reason for hope, because God has the last word.  And there is always room for change.  The believer in God understands that someday, somehow, God will make things right.  Isaiah writes about a time he sees when the world in perfect balance.  God is like the hub at the center of a wheel, and all the world will understand one day that when God is worshiped, justice lives.

Blacksmith 2People will come to God to be taught, and when God teaches them, the most amazing thing will happen: they will heat up those weapons and turn them into farm tools!  The people of God will find their inner blacksmith and recycle that anger into energy that God can use to help people!

Isaiah sees the Temple of God at the center of the world:  “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Even in his time, which was about 7 1/2 centuries before Christ, the Temple stood on a hilltop in Jerusalem, and you couldn’t escape seeing it, no matter where you were in the city.  But the Temple is enormously important not because it’s beautiful, or because it’s the biggest building for miles around, but because that’s where God is.  And God attracts people – from everywhere –  like a magnet.  And when people come to God, they stop learning war.  In other words, they start learning peace and reconciliation.

This does not happen simply because God tells them to do this; it happens as a natural result of worshiping God and being connected to God through worship.

Then Isaiah says to the people, let’s “walk in the light of the LORD!”…  this doesn’t have to be a vision of the future; let’s worship God right now; let’s make it a habit.  Let’s allow God to change us from people who learn war to people who grow things and feed each other.  When people come together with God, they learn how to come together with each other.  And when it happens, people walk in the light of God.  This isn’t a time when you die and you see a light at the end of a tunnel.  When people have faith in God they see light right now.  God wants you to see the light at the end of the tunnel before you die.  In fact, the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans tells Christians to put on the light.  Wear it like armor.

The Christians in Rome 800 years later were also in danger, but a different kind of danger.  This was before the persecutions and their world was giving them all sorts of things to worship other than Christ.  There were distractions all around, all the time; temptations to give in, to turn their backs on God.  Sound familiar?  It’s a different kind of attack and more dangerous to your faith.  I think everybody has their own enemy waiting around the corner.

The only kind of armor that protects you is the armor of light, and Paul says put it on.  He says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Now that’s a picture.  Wear Jesus.  Get into your faith so much, trust in him so mush, it’s like you’re wearing Jesus.  Wake up, leave the darkness, put on Jesus.

Not long ago, I heard a radio story about an employment agency in London that’s having trouble finding people to play Santa Claus (they call him Father Christmas).  They say that there just aren’t as many people as there used to be who are willing to look the part.  Now, if you really get into the story of St. Nick, you understand that Santa Claus actually has a fairly solid Christian background.  You see somebody wearing a Santa suit and it communicates a certain message, and it’s a good Christian message if you know the story.  The original St. Nick put himself at risk to help poor people at risk of being sold into slavery.  Could you see yourself dressing up like Santa?

Well, what does somebody look like when they’re wearing Jesus?  Maybe they have his eyes.  They see people and things the way he would.  Maybe they have his hands.  They do things he would do.  Maybe they have his feet.  They go places he would go.  Are you willing to look the part?  When you believe in what God has done for you in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, it’s a promise that… “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The colors, the wreath, the decorations, the readings are all signs that Jesus is coming.  What is the purpose of the coming of Christ?  Why did God send Jesus in the first place?  To make peace; to bring reconciliation between God and people.  Jesus is a peace offering to people who are alienated from God.  It’s no accident then, that people who have faith in God’s Son, who are wearing Jesus, are also known as people who love – God teaches them to reconcile with each other. With God’s help. they have beaten their swords into plowshares.

So as we worship, and then as we go about daily living with a lifestyle attitude of worship, we think of opportunities to reconcile instead of react with anger.  We think of situations that would be better served with forgiveness instead of hostility.  Who needs that from you today?  Who needs you to count to ten for the sake of Jesus, who loves that person?  We think of the One whom this holiday season is all about, and we put on Christ.


O God, we don’t like what we read in the papers or see on the news.  We seem to have made such a mess of your world. Forgive each of us for our part in making things they way they are, in ways known and unknown to us.  Teach us how to live in peace with each other.

In a mess of malls and wrapping paper and parties, we see a baby lying on straw.  Help us not to forget who is and what he is doing here.  Help us not to forget how much we need him.  Clear our minds and our hearts and help us have faith in him.  In our lives, our families, and our church, clothe us with him.  Give us the strength to follow where he leads us for his sake, and in his name.  Amen.