Christmas Eve, 2014: “The First Christmas Card”

We all have favorite Christmas movies, right?  There have been different movie versions of “A Christmas Carol” produced over the years.  It’s mostly about how Ebenezer Scrooge has to learn hard lessons about treating the people in his life with more respect, sharing the blessings he’s been given, and to get on with changing his life while he still has the opportunity.

The very first Christmas card that anybody knows about was printed in England in the 1840’s, around the time that Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol.”   It was a one-sided card, about the size of a postcard.  There were only about a thousand copies made and it wasn’t a huge seller, maybe because of the message in the images.  1843 Christmas Card

In the center, in color, is a happy family sitting around a dinner table, and they are toasting whoever is holding the card.  They look well-fed.  Cheers!  Even then, whoever received this card might be thinking, “What has that got to do with Christmas?”

1843 Christmas Card left side

 

 

Then off to the sides are a couple of other background images:  on the left is a hungry family being fed;

 

 

 

1843 Christmas Card right side

 

 

 

…on the right is someone being given clothing.  And it looks like the givers are the people sitting at the table.

 

 

 

 

So, what’s the message in that card?  What’s that got to with Christmas?  Maybe a picture of a newborn baby in a stable with a star over it wasn’t necessary.  It cuts to the chase.  God cares deeply for us, and then cares deeply through us.  The coming of Jesus is about caring, and letting that care flow through us.  God’s deep desire is to make life different for humanity. That can’t happen without you and me.  Jesus comes to light the match, so that then fire can spread, especially in places where life is not fair.

When we read the birth stories about Jesus, certain words stand out. Tonight, we lit the Christ candle, later in the service, we will light our own individual candles and tonight, we think about the word “light.”

The gospel of John doesn’t say a word about the birth of Jesus.  No stories of angels or shepherds or wise men.  Instead, it says this…

Advent candle

 

John 1:3-5.  3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people.5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Christ came to bring light.

 

 

The first verse of our Christmas song tonight has these words (say it with me):

“The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin; The Light of the world is Jesus! Like sunshine at noonday his glory shone in; The Light of the world is Jesus!”

Then the chorus goes (say it with me): “Come to the Light, ’tis waiting for thee; Sweetly the Light has dawned upon me; Once I was blind, but now I can see; The Light of the World is Jesus.”

Many people say that faith in Christ creates a kind of awakening, or new life, as if a light has been turned on in a dark room.  Through faith, God creates in us a new way of seeing and living.  With Christ living in us, together, we can create much light in our world.  With faith in Christ, we can truly be the people he described when he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and “Truly I tell you, just as you ;[cared for] one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you [cared for] me.”

 Prayer

O God, you are so generous to us; in Jesus, you’ve given us light in our dark world.  You love us more than we will ever know.  If only we could reflect the smallest particle of that love.  Help us give light to each other.  Help us not hold back from the good we know we should do in your name as your people.  Help us find ways to show others that having “God with us” makes all the difference. Amen.

12/21/2014 Sermon: Waiting for the Gift #4 – “You Shall Surely Celebrate!”

DSC_5383Luke 1:26-38.  In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come uponNativity you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

2:8-11 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

You Shall Surely Celebrate!

This sermon was adapted from “Refusing Joy” (www.homileticsonline.com, December 22, 2002)

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, in our house, the eating that happened around Christmas time wasn’t much different than Thanksgiving.  I think we even had turkey most years!  It’s a rule – between the end of November and the end of December, special food must be made and eaten.  You know what I mean.

Back in the day (up to the beginning of the 20th century), most people, even in our country, didn’t have consistent access to really good food as we think of it – and a lot of people in the world still don’t.  So, it seems to me that this might be the sort of thing God had in mind when the orders were given to have feasts in ancient times.  Share the special food, especially with those who can’t afford it.  Throw a banquet in my honor, says God!

A feast would be a combination of food and music and fellowship done in a way to remind people of the goodness of God, of ways in which God has saved the people – and is saving people. There was the Passover feast and other feasts to celebrate, say, the first harvest and last harvest of the year.  There might also be rite of passage feasts for events like weddings, and most of these feasts lasted for several days.  The special food was really special;  most people couldn’t have that food very often.  But during a feast, people could eat really well, so everyone had good reason to look forward to those times.  Our culture has learned to take good food for granted; it’s not special.  So, I’ve begun to think that people of long ago threw better parties than we do, and God was all about making the moment special, about having a good time.

I don’t know if you remember this from a few weeks ago: God’s first words to Pharaoh when he wanted Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people from slavery were, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1)

Later on, as the Hebrew people are on a long walk toward the Promised Land, God starts giving more explicit instructions:

Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns.  Seven days you shall keep the festival for the LORD your God at the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all your undertakings, and you shall surely celebrate.”  (Deuteronomy 16:14-15)

It seems to me that God is very serious about celebrating and rejoicing.  Too many people think of God as a killjoy.  And it’s not true!  The people of God are commanded to have joy, to have fun.  “You shall surely celebrate!”  Don’t you want to be part of a group that has that purpose, that’s been told to celebrate?

Christmas is a time of celebration, and an important part of the fun is food. The food we eat between Thanksgiving and Christmas adds a few pounds and gives us reasons to have New Year’s resolutions.   There’s nothing wrong with dropping the excess holiday weight in a healthy way, but dieting can become an unhealthy obsession. It’s possible to cause yourself more harm from the stress over extra weight than the extra weight itself might cause.  God wants to remove stress and replace it with joy.  Did I just say eat as much as you want?

There is a time for everything.  Gluttony happens when you eat too much all the time – and binge eating especially.  The bible also talks about times when the people of God fasted so that they could have a deeper experience of the presence of God.   When you fast, you deny yourself food so that you can concentrate on prayer and devotional thought.  This is mostly something you would do on your own, by yourself.  What’s interested to me is that in the bible, God doesn’t command people to fast.   But it is a spiritual way to clear the mind and heart.

There is a balance between feasting and fasting, a balance between quiet meditation, and enthusiastic joy.  Jesus fasted – and Jesus went to feasts.  But God never commands us to have stress – that’s our choice.  God said, “You shall surely celebrate!”  Joy is the response that God wants from us.

Sing the first verse of “Joy to the World.”  Is that how you feel?

I was reading an article on holiday stress that went this way:

“You do realize, that if you stand in front of the pastry case at the coffee shop and calculate calories in your head, trying to figure out if a chocolate chip cookie is going to show up on your hips, you are actually doing more damage to your heart from the stress than if you simply ate the d**n cookie and allowed yourself to experience the joy of it, right? You do realize that happiness and personal acceptance are hundreds of times better for you than stressful self-denial, right?”

The truth of the matter is that you can eat right, drink your bottled water, take your vitamins, get plenty of sleep, and still get hit by a bus. And looking out the windows at the ambulance taking you away will be a bunch of gluttons who didn’t think twice about eating the chocolate chip cookie that you just denied yourself.”

“Refusing Joy” (www.homileticsonline.com, December 22, 2002)

“You shall surely celebrate!”  God commands you to enjoy the holiday season.  I have always believed that the church should be one place, one group of people, where joy could be found, no matter what was going on in the world, or in our lives.

Since September 11, 2001, we’ve heard a lot about comfort food, and after that day, we needed comfort.  But how about joyful food – food that makes you happy?  Think back to your childhood (Kids, I need this moment with your parents).  Do you remember what used to be at the candy counter?  Life’s little pleasure – the 10-cent – or 25-cent – Snickers bar.   A lot of those candies are still around, including M & Ms.  And I’d like you to share in my joy.

20141223_153326The ushers will come forward, and we will distribute the M & Ms of joy (Pretzel and Chocolate Mint).  Please hold your M & M until all are served.

With “Joy to the World” playing in the background… “Eat the M & M of joy.”

Yes, we ate M&Ms in worship.  God commanded us to celebrate and we obeyed.

In everyday life, the trick is to find the balance between deliberate, serious thought on difficult issues and joy – allowing yourself to be immersed in happiness for all God has done for you. Happiness produces endorphins that keep you healthy.  And even if laughter isn’t the best medicine, wouldn’t you rather live 10 years eating ice cream than 100 years eating rice cakes?

God wants us to experience joy!  It’s not like we’re supposed to sing “Stress to the world, the Lord has come.”  Or, “Fret, worry, and be anxious, the Lord has come.”  It’s not like the archangel burst in on the shepherds and said, “Fear not, for today I bring you tidings of great stress -which shall be to all people.”  That’s usually the way it works: When we’re stressed, we bring our stress to all people – husband, wife, children, the family pet, friends and co-workers. Instead, the good news was: “I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for all people.”

Backing up a little, the angel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:26-28).  The story doesn’t start out very joyfully.  Mary is troubled or “perplexed.”  That word, troubled, clearly doesn’t translate the moment.  How would you feel if an angel appeared to you and said those words?  “Right at the moment, angel, it doesn’t feel like the Lord is with me.”

The angel is giving Mary a shot at huge, amazing joy: the chance to be the mother of God. How big is that?!  It’s an offer.  A choice.  She has a choice to take the joy – as we all do.  But for Mary, this choice brings with it the knowledge that she will soon be visibly pregnant.  And when that happens, there goes her reputation.  In that culture, according to the law, she could be executed for becoming pregnant by anyone but Joseph, or punished in some other humiliating way.  The joy is on the other side of very real stress.  Sometimes, it’s possible to be so caught in the valley of the shadow of death that you think you’ll never see sunshine again.  But God has made a promise to give you joy.

2014 was a hard year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons.  Lately, I’ve been talking about what a struggle it is for some folks to make their way through the holiday season.  This morning, if you’re in that place, I’d like to challenge you to let it go, even if it’s just for a few minutes.  Leave the door open for some joy.

It’s Christmas. Eat. Enjoy.  Think about the diet in January.  But true Christmas joy, true Christian joy, is not about eating cream puffs without guilt. The joy we refuse more often has nothing to do with food.  The happiness we so often avoid is spiritual, not physical … it involves believing, not bingeing. The joy that we are guilty of leaving behind is the joy that comes from opening our hearts to the presence of Christ, the joy that comes from letting God bless us, the joy that comes from giving ourselves over to God’s care. That’s what Mary did, after all. She gave herself over to the God that does the impossible.

In the middle of our stressful lives, God wants us to have joy.  God wants us to know that we are favored – like Mary, that God loves us, and that God will not fail us.  God wants us to find a way to include others in our joy.

Greetings, favored one. God says that to you!  God sends Jesus to remind us that we are not alone, that God is with us in the very center of the pains and problems of life.  The joy of God is an offer you can refuse.  But why would you?

 Prayer

 God, send your Spirit to clear the path for us, clear the way to joy.  Remove those things in our lives that stand between us and you, the things that keep us from having joy.  Help us celebrate.  And as we celebrate, help us all to find the balance between denial and fulfillment. Give us the gift of self-control, but most of all, help us enjoy you, help us enjoy the fellowship of your people, and give us the joy that comes from a filling, eternal relationship with you at the center of our lives.  In the name of your son living Jesus, whose birth we celebrate.  Amen.

12/14/2014 Sermon: Waiting for the Gift #3 – “Pointing the Way”

Christmas – Nichols family; that’s me at the far right.  1956.

We have so many unique Christmas traditions among us, so many gathered around the room.  I’ll bet you could tell me stories of things that you’ve done with your families, some of which might have been passed down from your parents or grandparents, or maybe further back.

When I was growing up, on Christmas morning, there would be chocolate “gold” coins and oranges in our stockings.  That kind of stocking stuffer goes back to the late 1800’s (the coins themselves go back much further to St. Nicholas in Turkey, who gave from his personal wealth to help poor folks)  Eventually, those two things turned into chocolate oranges!

Maybe the way you have celebrated Christmas has a connection to your ethnic roots.  Most Americans observe Christmas in some way, even if they are not Christians.  What we do at Christmas is wrapped around memories – mostly positive, warm things you remember from your childhood, some of which come out of boxes around this time of year and then go back into boxes in January (or February!).  We’ve always done it that way, right?  Well, not really.  You can probably think of some ways that the tradition has changed in your own household over the years.  It depends on who’s there and who’s not there.

“Christmas” is not a Bible word, and the tradition of celebrating Christmas grew very slowly through the centuries.  It started with a European feast day in the 4th century.  In this country, most of what we do now to celebrate the Christmas holiday started happening in the last century or so, after the Civil War, including Christmas trees and Santa Claus.  I know it’s hard to believe, but Christmas wasn’t always a time when people spent a lot of money (my Puritan ancestors in Massachusetts actually banned the celebration of Christmas!).  The folks who lived in Manheim (PA) two hundred years ago and worshiped on this spot, might say that the way we recognize Christmas is kind of over-the-top.  And as strange as it seems, at the beginning of the Christian faith, most people had no idea that the day of Jesus’ birth was something to Christians were supposed to celebrate.  It was his life and death and resurrection that you wanted to pay attention to.

Isenheim Altarpiece - Matthias Grunwald, 16th cent.
Isenheim Altarpiece – Matthias Grunwald, 16th cent.

So, Mark and John begin their with stories about John the Baptist, who was the point man for Jesus, preparing the way for his ministry.  This is why many churches  have scripture readings about John the Baptist during Advent, who gets people’s attention then turns that attention toward Jesus.  This is why classical paintings of John the Baptist show him pointing… at Jesus. He was literally the point man!

John 1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John the Baptist commanded such respect in his day that the writer of this gospel (John the apostle, the young follower of Jesus who is writing as an old man) had to make sure that everyone knew he was not the Messiah.  In fact, John the Baptist’s only real function in the Gospel stories is to make people realize their need for God and then point to the one who meets that need.  What is that need?  Forgiveness.  To be clean.   To have a fresh start.  To be reconciled with God.  He points at Jesus and says, “He’s the one you want.”  (“He must increase; but I must decrease.“ …Pointing)

There’s a crowd gathering and they’re headed for the river.  Meeting John the Baptist down by the river has the effect of changing your direction, but it’s meeting Jesus that changes your life.  A lot of us have had someone in our lives like John the Baptist.: someone who has, in one way or another, pointed the way to Christ and said – you need to know him.  Jesus changed your life, and you had a friend or family member who made the introduction.

Advent CandleThe reason we worship from week to week is to retell the story of how God became one of us, took our short-comings on himself, lived again after we killed him, and has the power to change us when we believe in him.  Believing in the living Jesus give us a kind of light when things seem dark.

Did you notice how that scripture about John the Baptist was full of legal vocabulary?  He came as a witness, to testify.  He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah”  (1:20)  Almost sounds like he’s in a courtroom being grilled by a prosecutor!

As believers, we are being judged. People are watching. If you are a believer in Christ, you are a witness to the light.  What does a witness do?  Gives testimony to what they have seen and experienced.  The courtroom is your daily life, and the jury might be anybody who needs to hear the story of how God loves them and what God can do for them.  As God’s people in Christ’s church, the community wants to know if we really believe what we say we believe.  Does the way we live together reflect the Christ we say we follow?  There are people who need what we have.  Here’s a simple story of how that can work:

[This story may or may not be true – it can be found in numerous places throughout cyberspace.]

Two Babes in the Manger.  Back in 1994, two Americans were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics in their prisons, at their businesses, fire and police departments and even at a large orphanage. They were also told they could teach from the perspective of their faith.

The orphanage turned out to be the most interesting experience.  There were about 100 boys and girls in the orphanage, children who had been abandoned, abused and left in the care of a government-run program.  It was the holiday season, and it was time for the orphans to hear – for the first time – the traditional story of Christmas.   One of the workers described what happened:

“We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding no room in the inn, so the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.

“When we finished the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a simple manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city.  Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw.  Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.

“The orphans were busy assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat – he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was surprised to see not one, but two babies in the manger.

“Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the boy why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he retold it accurately – until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.

“Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, ‘And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him – for always.’

“As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him – for always.”

We call Jesus by the name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” Every Christmas, we have a new opportunity to be with the God who came in Jesus Christ, who will never abandon us or abuse us, but stays with us – for always.  This is not fiction.  Jesus promises to be with us in real life:

*When the biopsy comes back positive, instead of negative.

When a spouse stomps out the door, and doesn’t return.

When the dream of success in business suddenly disappears

When the late-night long-distance call is not good news.

When family relationships are destroyed by shouting matches.

When the hope for companionship is drained by another lonely holiday season.

*retrieved from www.homileticsonline.com, December 15, 2002.

In all of these situations, our God is with us.  Immanuel.  God with us.  As believers, we point the way to him.  We give away the good news:  You can be forgiven.  You can be clean.  You can have a fresh start.  God can be with you.  In God’s kingdom, we all start out as children and there’s always room for another baby in the manger.

Someone in the room needs to know that they have a place next to Jesus.  Someone where you work or where you go to school needs to know that they are accepted as they are.  Someone outside needs to be invited inside.  I believe God will show you who that is and give you the words to say.

Prayer

O God, as the days grow shorter, we spend a lot of time in the dark.  We spend a lot of time looking for light.  Help us remember in this season that we find light in you, and that you have overcome darkness.  You have overcome the worst of the human experience, and you want to help us overcome also.

Help us put aside the distractions.  Help us find just a few minutes of quiet to enjoy your presence and soak in your peace and your strength.  Help us sing the carols with a little more faith.  Open our eyes to see how we can share that faith with those near us.   Amen.

12/7/2014 Sermon: Waiting for the Gift #2 – “Welcome Home”

Last week, we were talking about how messy the holidays can be.  Yesterday morning, during the breakfast with Santa here in Manheim, PA, it was rainy and gloomy outside, but that’s not really the kind of mess I mean.  It’s messy, and some messes have nothing to do with the weather or what’s happening in your kitchen.  God sent Jesus into a world that is not perfect, and it goes way beyond weather problems.  You know what I mean.  Even if it’s peaceful in your house right now, all you have to do is turn on the news to see the mess.  God comes to people full of flaws, who have a close relationship with pain, who are trying to remember when they were happy.  That’s the point.  God sent Jesus to Ferguson, Missouri; to Palestine, to New York, to Philadelphia, to Manheim, and to your house.  Maybe you remember this scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life”…

You can tell that there is something going on that’s deeper than piano practicing.  There are no easy solutions to many problems, but the beginning to finding the peace we all need so desperately begins with a prayer from your deepest place:  God, we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world that is largely our own doing.  Forgive us; we are yours.  And in response, God says this:

Isaiah 40:1-11.  Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Isaiah wrote those words about 500 years before the birth of Jesus.  All those years before Christ, the people of Israel had lost their home – both their geographical home and their spiritual home.  They were conquered by the Babylonians and taken by force into exile. At the time Isaiah was being written, the exile had lasted a long time – 48 years.  And they are very far away from home in Babylon (Iraq) – about 800 miles.  Their only memories of home – Jerusalem –  include images of death and ruins.  In some ways, it is the same situation as the slavery in Egypt almost 1,000 years before.  And just as in Egypt, they’ve grown tolerant of the situation.They may not like it all that much in Babylon, but they are used to it.  At least some of them some of exiles have a decent lifestyle going for them in Babylon.

Can you put yourself in their place?  Life isn’t perfect, but it’s okay.  I’m used to it.  It’s only troublesome if I think about it too much.  I’m comfortable, and besides, the last thing I remember of Israel is that it was destroyed.  Then the voice comes.  God wants me to do what?  God wants me to go where?  We need to be convinced that we should travel this road, convinced that the journey is safe.  There’s another part – we need to be forgiven for the sins that got us into this predicament in the first place.

And that’s the point of that scripture, and the point of Christmas: God wants you to come back home.  Your sins are forgiven.  God says, “Follow me.  I will make the path easy for you.  I will be with you.  No matter what you think, if you stick with me, everything will be okay.”  God is speaking like this to the people in exile because not everyone is unhappy in Babylon.  They don’t sense the need.  Some of them don’t think they need to be forgiven.  God is speaking “comfort” to them not because they are in pain, but because they are comfortable and literally need to step out of their comfort zone and start walking the new path toward home.

Doesn’t it seem like the holidays got really complicated?    In a complicated season, it’s really a simple idea.  Just come home.  Home is with God and God makes the way easy.

Just come home.  Come home from being away from God; from being lost, from being in exile.  This is why John the Baptist was preaching about sin and the forgiveness of sin.  His way of introducing people to Jesus was to baptize people as a sign of their repentance, their willingness to own up to a life without God, which is what sin is.  Sin is a life without God.  To repent in the biblical sense means to change your mind about God and be willing to change the direction of your life.

Mark 1:1-4.  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

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The Judean hills near Jericho, Palestine, where John the Baptist lived and preached. The Jordan River is in the distance. CN – 2011.

This is the place where John the Baptist was living and preaching.  Not exactly inviting.  He “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  This is how he prepares the way in a wilderness place, where there isn’t a straight path to found.

I know that right now we’re headed into a season of joy and that we don’t want to dwell on the negative this morning. But when God came into our lives in that baby, born in that stable with the star over it, God didn’t come just to give us an excuse to spend a lot of money and have parties; Christmas has a dark side, and God came for one purpose: to deal with the sin our lives.  There really is “a reason for the season”.

This is why the news is so good.  The people are lost and God is helping them find the way home.  This is exactly what God does in Jesus: invites everyone to come home.  Just come home.  And Jesus is the way.  Your openness to him is all you need.  A simple prayer that says, “God, I’m yours.”

All the things we do as believers and as a church need to advertise, “This is the way home.”  All the committees and groups of the church need to think about how they help point the way to Jesus.  Now it’s our job in all the things we do, to point to Christ, the risen, transcendent God who saves us.

The decorations and the music don’t hide the fact that Jesus still comes to a dark, dangerous, confusing world.  Jesus comes into our desert wilderness and shows us the way home from exile.

In the wilderness of worrying about your job, God is there. In the wilderness of health problems, Jesus is with you.  In the wilderness of loss, God will make the rough places a plain.  In the wilderness of stress at school, God says study, but you don’t need to be consumed with worry.  In the wilderness of financial problems, which always seem to get worse right about now, God wants to know if you are willing to have faith – and let God lead.  Just come home.

Alive again –  that’s what it feels like to come home.  Jesus comes to invite you home.  Believe.

Prayer

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.  Forgive us for the sin that made it necessary to sacrifice your son.  But you are able to lead us out of the wilderness and we hear your voice calling to us.  It’s faint, but we hear it.  In a mess of malls and wrapping paper and loud 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.  Give us the strength to follow where he leads us for his sake, and in his name.  Amen.