January newsletter article

Disclaimer: I realize that what I’m about to say is region-specific. It’s not necessarily as applicable for other parts of this country let alone other parts of the world. However, it is in this part of the world – the great-yet-frozen state of Minnesota – that I live, and so these are my observations.

The new year is upon us. 2014 is over, and 2015 lays spread out before us like an open book, ready and waiting for us to make our mark upon its blank and expectant pages.

May people use the new year as an opportunity to start anew – to his the “refresh” button on some aspect of their lives or another. We want to be a better version of ourselves, and what better time to seek out and embrace that new “self” than the new year? It’s no coincidence that so many ad campaigns capitalize on some variation of the phrase “A new year, a new you!” It speaks to that deep longing we have in our hearts to make a change – to learn something … do something … be something fresh and new and different.

Who am I going to be?

What am I going to do differently?

How am I going to enact real change in my life?

Often, these questions spur new year’s resolutions.

“This year, I’m going to get healthy.”

“This year, I’m going to quit smoking.”

“This year, I’m going to learn to be financially responsible.”

“This year, I’m going to be more organized.”

“This year, I’m going to be more patient/compassionate/generous/kind.”

I find it both interesting and ironic that this laser-focus on a new version of life comes in the midst of a season that seems so devoid of life.

The ground is frozen.

The trees are leafless.

The days are short and the nights oh, so long.

Any plants left over from last season lie dormant in the ground at best, and at worst, are shriveled and brown and dead.

And the only life we witness outside – human or otherwise – moves quickly from one warm space to another in an attempt to not freeze.

In the midst of this season in which the world seems on hold at best, we focus on ways to renew our lives.

Immense in mercy and with an incredible love, God embraced us. God took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. God did all this on God’s own, with no help from us! ~ Ephesians 3:4-5 (The Message)

From death, life.

And more than just a lackluster existence. As Jesus says to the disciples in John’s gospel, “I came so that they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (Jn 10:10).

Friends, this is the essence of the Good News that we share – that in the midst of the coldness and darkness and deadness of sin, Christ came to bring life and forgiveness and grace.

To all.

For all.

So as you think about what your new year’s resolutions and how to start afresh in the year ahead, remember that God has made you alive in Christ, giving you a love that never ends, a forgiveness that never faces, and a peace that cannot be surpassed. Let this reassurance be your warmth in the cold … your light in the darkness … your inspiration and encouragement in days, weeks, and year ahead.

 Pastor Lisa sign

Christmas Eve: Invitations to Bethlehem

On Christmas Eve, instead of a full-fledged sermon, we journeyed our way to Bethlehem together with Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, and, finally, each other. We did this with Scripture, with poetry, and with Christmas hymns. In this post are links to the Scripture readings (New Revised Standard Version … for nostalgic purposes), the original poetry (please credit if you use it … thank you), and links to the hymns we used. 

Come … travel to Bethlehem with us.

Introduction:
Friends, the time has come to travel to Bethlehem. A mother and father await. An extravagance of angels awaits. A band of shepherds awaits. And a world in need – in need of love, in need of compassion, in need of a Savior – awaits. But even on that first Christmas night thousands of years ago when all the grace of heaven collided with all the vulnerability of humanity in the form of one precious, little baby boy – even on that night of nights, it was necessary for those involved to take a chance,  to make a choice, to take steps of their own. Mary and Joseph traveled. The angels traveled. The shepherds traveled. And tonight, we travel toward Bethlehem, too.

Tonight, we travel with Mary & Joseph:

Scripture: Luke 2:1-7

Dark night, cold night,
night of discomfort and night of fear,
bumping along on the back of a donkey
from Nazareth to Bethlehem:
70 miles never felt so far …
so far …
so far to go …
Cold … uncomfortable … afraid –
impressions that chased each other
‘round and ‘round
through Mary’s mind
and body
and senses.
Cold … uncomfortable … afraid,
with every halting step the donkey took.
Cold … uncomfortable … afraid,
with every lovingly fretful glance from Joseph.
Cold … uncomfortable … afraid,
with every labor pain that clenched her swollen belly.
Cold … uncomfortable … afraid,
with every innkeeper’s shaking head:
“No room.”
“No room.”
“No room.”
BUT THE LIGHT OF A SPECIAL STAR LED THE WAY,
And Mary’s heart sang a different tune –
a tune of hope,
a tune of grace,
a tune of overwhelming LOVE.
Faith … peace … light,
when the last innkeeper finally pointed them
to the stable.
Faith … peace … light,
when her time had finally come.
Faith … peace … light,
when the cries of her newborn son
mingled with the cries of the animals
who welcomed him.
Faith … peace … light,
when she cradled God-With-Us
in her arms
and felt Joseph
cradling them both, too –
her as well as this tiny baby …
this tiny baby who had come to save the world.
Mary knew
she brought a precious gift for this Christ-child:
an instant home
in her arms,
in her heart.
Mary knew
she brought protection for this Christ-child:
God’s son,
yes,
but her son, too.
So as we journey that dusty road
toward Bethlehem
with Mary
and Joseph
and a donkey laden with the Hope of humanity,
we walk a path of
faith … peace … light,
and, above all,
LOVE.

Hymn: Away in a Manger

Tonight, we travel with the Angels:

Scripture: Luke 2:8-14

HARK!
The rustle,
rustle,
rustle of wings –
wings against robes,
wings against wings,
wings against the sheer joy and anticipation
that was palpable all throughout heaven that day –
the rustle of wings
nearly drowned out the
Final Instructions:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace and good will to all.”
This was their task.
This was their purpose.
This was their calling this night of nights:
A message to deliver,
a birth to proclaim,
a chorus to sing.
And sing they would.
Glorias and alleluias,
Descants and hymns,
Blessings and praises
to the God Most High
(who, truth be told, was about to become
a God Most Lowly).
HARK!
The time had come!
And so the angels went,
AND THE LIGHT OF A SPECIAL STAR LED THE WAY –
led the way to a hillside
just outside of Bethlehem,
led the way to some shepherds
who were keeping watch over their flocks by night,
led the way to a great and awesome delivery:
HARK!
Joy
and excitement
and glory!
HARK!
Worship
and adoration
and praise!
After a journey to end all journeys,
from heaven to earth,
from the laudable to the lowly,
from the extraordinary to the ordinary,
the angels –
robed in splendor,
bathed in splendor,
declaring splendor –
the angels came.
So as we journey through starlit skies
toward Bethlehem
with cherubim
and seraphim
and a heavenly host laden with the greatest of “Hallelujahs,”
we walk a path of
worship … praise … adoration,
and, above all,
JOY.

Hymn: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Tonight, we travel with the Shepherds:

Scripture: Luke 2:15-20

Sheep,
sheep on all sides:
the sounds of sheep,
the smell of sheep,
the feeling of wool
rough against the shepherds’ own
rough skin.
A normal night …
or so they thought.
A night like any other …
or not.
There on that hillside
that was dark
and quiet
and mostly deserted,
the shepherds ate,
the shepherds slept,
the shepherds went about life
as
usual …
until the angels appeared –
hundreds of angels,
thousands of angels,
an extravagance of angels
all vivid and vibrant and suffused with light.
The shepherds recoiled.
The angels reassured.
The angels heralded.
The shepherds heard.
A baby …
a manger …
a long-awaited Savior …
and all they had to do was go.
AND THE LIGHT OF A SPECIAL STAR LED THE WAY
down the hill,
across the valleys,
into the sleeping town
and the stable
and the presence of God.
The shepherds went with haste,
knowing exactly what they brought with them:
field-weary eyes and feet and souls,
the smell of the open hills
and the grass
and the sheep –
all those things for which they were usually ridiculed.
But tonight,
on this most unexpected
and glorious
and holy of nights,
the shepherds knew they brought something else:
a sense of humility,
and a sense of awe.
When their road-weary feet
finally brought them to the stable,
they were the first
to witness
and to worship
the newborn Christ-child.
So as we journey across the hills
toward Bethlehem
with quiet shepherds
and tired shepherds
and shepherds laden with the significance of the One they sought,
we walk a path of
spontaneity … authenticity … humility,
and, above all,
WONDER.

Hymn: Go, Tell It On the Mountain

Tonight, we travel with each other:

Scripture: Titus 2:11-14

Here within these walls,
a hundred different roads come together.
Here within these walls,
a hundred different voices
share in the same story,
the same song,
the same proclamation:
“For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.”
The beauty and the sacred among us
can be found
in our differences –
the different gifts we bring,
the different stories we tell,
the different backgrounds we come from,
even the different baggage we carry.
And the beauty and the sacred among us
can be found
in our selfsameness –
we share God’s gift of grace,
we share God’s gift of forgiveness,
we share God’s gift of peace.
Tonight,
on this special night,
on this holy night,
we journey together –
a wayfaring family of faith,
stranger and friends sharing sacred space
and sacred time,
AND THE LIGHT OF A SPECIAL STAR STILL LEADS THE WAY.
It lights the way
when we’re cold … uncomfortable … afraid,
unsure of what lies ahead
but stepping out in faith in the face of it all.
It lights the way
when we’re bringing the Good News
sharing our hope
our anchor
our faith
in a Savior-God who came for all.
It lights the way
in the midst of our everyday lives
when we’re caught off-guard
by a glimpse of the holy amidst the lowly.
So as we journey through this night together
toward Bethlehem
with friends
and neighbors
and hearts laden with the blessings of the Christ-child
we walk a path of
humanity … uniqueness … togetherness,
and, above all,
GRACE.

Hymn: On Christmas Night All Christians Sing

Sunday’s Sermon: The Beginning in The End

Texts for this sermon: Isaiah 9:2-7 and 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11

This year, we will be using the picture book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (ill. byP.J. Lynch) throughout our Advent sermon series. For copyright purposes, I will not be able to share the entirety of that story within the content of these blog posts, but I do encourage you to either check this book out from your local library or purchase a copy for your own personal library. It’s an incredible story with stunning illustrations.

jonathan toomey cover

  • Quick recap of sermon series/Jonathan Toomey’s story up to this point
  • So let’s look in on the end of Jonathan Toomey’s story. – [read Toomey, pt. 4[1], pp. ]
    • Now can you see why this is one of my favorite Christmas stories?
      • Speaks to light shining in the darkness
      • Speaks to redemptive power of love
      • Speaks to hope
      • Maybe not so different from the story of another little boy that we focus on this time of year?
  • Jonathan Toomey begins his story struggling.
    • Surface: struggles with carving figures
      • Getting them “right” in Thomas’ eyes
      • Getting them “right” in his own eyes – That’s where we found him at the beginning of today’s portion.
        • Tries to sketch Mary and baby Jesus – tosses sketches in fire
        • Tries to start carving Mary and baby Jesus – tosses wood block in fire
      • Deeper: struggles with heartache and isolation
        • Feeling defeated/broken down by grief and loss
        • Fear/hesitancy to get close to anyone again – more love = more loss
      • See struggles like this echoes in OT text this morning
        • Speaks of people having “walked in darkness”
        • Is goes on to describe that darkness: The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants – all their whips and cudgels and curses … the boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood[2]
        • It’s important to know that Isaiah was speaking God’s word to people in exile → explain Babylonian exile (modern day Egypt east into Iran, northern half of Saudi Arabia all the up into Turkey and just past the northern border of Iran)
          • People who had been yanked from everything familiar to them
            • Culture
            • Worship center
            • Homes
            • Even some families were torn apart.
              • Those taken into exile were artists, thinkers, religious and political leaders  Those whom the Babylonians deemed unimportant and unproductive to society were simply left behind.
            • Imagine the darkness of an experience like that – the loss, the loneliness, the isolation.
              • Times in our lives when we experience darkness
                • Illness (our own or loved ones)
                • Grief
                • Frustration/misunderstanding
                • Depression
    • And though it may be harder to detect, there’s struggle behind our New Testament text this morning as well. – context for Paul’s 1st letter to church in Thessalonica
      • Apprehension/fear over Paul’s extended absence  Paul had set up this church, then moved on as he always did. However, despite numerous attempts, he was unable to return to Thessalonica to check on the life of the congregation that had been established there. And this made them anxious.
      • Serious unease in the face of social pressures and persecution  people (their neighbors? family? friends?) constantly berating them for their crazy, new-fangled faith in that Jesus guy
  • Sometimes it feels like that darkness is going to be a part of our lives forever – like we’re never going to see the light again.
    • Not told how much time passes between loss of Jonathan Toomey’s wife and child and widow McDowell and Thomas showing up on his doorstep BUT given the impression that it’s a number of years  And yet, despite that stretch of darkness, we see a light shine in Jonathan Toomey’s life – a light that comes not simply in the midst of the darkness but by way of the darkness, redeeming the darkness.
      • Toomey not only makes peace with the past but transforms pain of that past into something beautiful – story: Jonathan sat down in his rocking chair and held the picture [of the woman and the baby] against his chest. He rocked slowly, his eyes closed. Two tears trailed into his beard. When he finally took the picture to his workbench and began to carve, his fingers worked quickly and surely.[3]  draws both strength and inspiration from love for wife/child and allows that love to guide but not override his design/the rest of his life
    • Find light shining in both Scriptures this morning, too – light from a couple different sources
      • OT speaks of the Light of Christ: For a child has been born – for us! the gift of a son – for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. … there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.[4]  This is the Christ for whom we wait – the child who will bring …
        • Amazing Light
        • Strong Light
        • Eternal Light
        • Light of Wholeness
        • Think about what we do with the Advent wreath every week. We light a new candle, but we also continue to light the candles from the previous weeks. As we draw closer and closer to Christmas, the light on the wreath grows and grows.
      • NT speaks to Light within each of us: Friends, you’re not in the dark, so how could you be taken off guard by any of this? You’re sons of Light, daughters of Day. … Since we’re creatures of Day, let’s act like it. Walk out into the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love, and the hope of salvation.[5]  reminds us of our charge, our challenge, and our chance to share that Light with others
        • Let them know where you see the “amazing” in them
        • Remind them that they are stronger than they think
        • Reassure them of God’s eternal love
        • Help them find that wholeness that we all seek
        • Again, we embody this in what we do with our Advent wreath. – Christmas Eve = sharing the light with one another, light that comes from the Christ candle in the middle of the wreath
          • Given more everyday guidance in this in NT text, too: Speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.[6]
  • And just as that light continues to grow among us, we watch it grow in Jonathan Toomey’s life as well.  witness the redemptive power of love as that light grows brighter and brighter, stronger and stronger
    • See it in good Jonathan Toomey does with the nativity figures: From the box, Jonathan unpacked two curly, happy sheep because they were with Jesus. He unpacked a proud cow and an angel, a very important angel with mighty wings stretching from its shoulders right down to the hem of its gown. He unpacked three wise men wearing their most wonderful robes, edged with fur and falling in rich folds. He unpacked a serious and caring Joseph. He unpacked Mary wearing a rough-hewn shawl, looking down, loving her precious baby son. Jesus was smiling and reaching up to touch his mother’s face.[7]  This is another one of those passages where I wish I could bring the illustration around for each and every one of you to see.
      • Beauty of the figures, just as the author described them … just as Thomas described them to Jonathan Toomey
      • Beauty of the expression on Thomas’ face
        • Excitement
        • Delight
        • Awe
        • All inspired by Jonathan Toomey’s gift
      • Also see good Jonathan Toomey does for himself: That day in the churchyard the village children saw Jonathan throw back his head, showing his eyes as clear blue as an August sky, and laugh. No one ever called him Mr. Gloomy again.[8]
        • Finds healing
        • Finds joy
        • Finds love
        • Finds hope
        • And in opening himself up in this way again – by sharing his heart and his companionship with the Widow McDowell and Thomas – Jonathan Toomey gives them a gift beyond the beautiful carved figures. Remember, Jonathan Toomey isn’t the only one in this story who’s dealing with loss. We may not be told anything about the Widow McDowell’s late husband and Thomas’ late father, but we can assume that just as Jonathan Toomey’s heart yearns for his deceased wife and child, so their hearts yearn for this unnamed man. → just as they are filling a void in Jonathan Toomey’s life, he is filling a void in theirs
          • Power of love = cannot be touched by genuine, wholehearted love and not be affected by it
        • This is the power of God’s love in our lives as well – a love that heals, that saves, that grows within us and spills out to the people around us. As the poem goes, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.”[9]  find redemptive power of God’s love in both Scriptures
          • OT: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows – light! sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.[10]  Light in the face of darkness! Joy in the face of despair! Love in the face of loss! Hope, hope, hope. This is what God gives to us.
            • Grace upon grace
            • Hope upon hope
            • Love upon love
          • NT: God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him![11]  Again, light … hope … redemption. The power of Love. In these few simple verses, we find the essence of the gospel, the reason for the season: salvation through Christ who “died for us, a death that triggered life … we’re alive with him!” Friends, this is good news! Amen.

[1] Susan Wojciechowski. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 1995), 26-33.

[2] Is 9:4, 5.

[3] Wojciechowski, 28.

[4] Is 9:6-7a.

[5] 1 Thess 5:4-5a, 8.

[6] 1 Thess 5:11.

[7] Wojciechowski, 30.

[8] Wojciechowski, 32.

[9] Christina Rosetti. “Love Came Down at Christmas,” first published in Time Flies: A Reading Diary, 1885.

[10] Is 9:2-3 (emphasis added).

[11] 1 Thess 5:9-10.

Sunday’s Sermon: The Anchor and the Affliction of Love

Texts for this sermon: Psalm 42 and 1 John 4:7-21

This year, we will be using the picture book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (ill. by P.J. Lynch) throughout our Advent sermon series. For copyright purposes, I will not be able to share the entirety of that story within the content of these blog posts, but I do encourage you to either check this book out from your local library or purchase a copy for your own personal library. It’s an incredible story with stunning illustrations.

jonathan toomey cover

  • Quick breakdown of sermon series/Jonathan Toomey’s story up to this point
  • And so we continue with our story this morning. – [read pt. 3[1], pp. 18-25]
    • Last week, we talked about little Thomas’ determination to break through Jonathan Toomey’s tough outer shell and about God’s determination to break through all the difficult and dark things that surround us.
      • Didn’t see a lot of evidence that Thomas’ efforts were very fruitful last week → But this week, we see Jonathan Toomey’s chilly exterior beginning to thaw.
        • Cares about impression he makes on Widow McDowell and Thomas – smooths down his hair and cleans himself up before jumping up to answer the door when he hears them knock
        • Concedes to teach Thomas how to carve – story: When the church bells chimed six o’clock, Jonathan Toomey was holding Thomas’s hand in his, guiding the knife along the edge of a [robin’s] wing.[2]
        • Finally willingly speaking to Thomas – actually requests Thomas’ help/elicits his opinion on remaining figures (gradual process)
          • Starts a little grudgingly with angel: “Mr. Toomey, excuse me, is that my angel you’re carving?” “Yes. And would you do me the favor of telling me exactly what I’m doing wrong?”[3]
            • Initiation still comes from Thomas but at least Jonathan Toomey’s response is more than a grunt
          • A little more open with Joseph and wise men: “Next, I will carve the wise men and Joseph,” the woodcarver said to Thomas. “Perhaps, before I begin, you will tell me about all the mistakes I am going to make.”[4]
          • With final figures – Mary and Jesus – Jonathan Toomey loses all hints of sarcasm and grouchiness: “I am about to begin the last two figures – Mary and the baby. Can you tell me how your figures looked?”[5]
  • You know, as I read these pages over and over again this week, I kept picturing an ice cube melting in your hand. Yes, a large part of that imagery has to do with the fact that Jonathan Toomey’s demeanor seems to be warming and softening under Thomas’s adoring and persistent 7-year-old touch. But there’s more to it than that. Have you ever actually sat there and held onto an ice cube while it melts?
    • Holding a melting ice cube = kind of painful → It’s cold – so cold! – and sometimes that cold literally becomes too much to handle.
      • No matter what relationship you’re talking about – family relationships, friendships, or romantic relationships – there’s always going to be friction. There are always going to be times when we disappoint and hurt and challenge one another.
        • Point of clarification: difference between pain involved when someone hurts our feelings and pain involved in abuse (any kind) → abuse is never okay
      • But the risk that’s involved in loving someone is that when you love, you give someone a piece of yourself with the full knowledge and awareness that that piece may well end up getting a little bit tattered and torn.
        • Like holding a melting ice cube, this can be painful = the risk/affliction of love
        • Watch this play out in Jonathan Toomey’s story
          • As roles of Thomas and Widow McDowell expand in Jonathan Toomey’s life, they begin to rub up against those raw edges left by his grief (loss of wife, child)
            • Continues softening that we already talked about
            • Also moments of sharp pain – Jonathan Toomey’s reaction to Widow McDowell bringing out cloth embroidered with lilies of the valley and daisies: “Never open that drawer,” the woodcarver said harshly.[6]
          • Ps gives voice to that breaking point: I’m on a diet of tears – tears for breakfast, tears for supper. … Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me.[7]
            • Speaks of pain and discomfort and struggle we all feel in relationship with other people sometimes
            • Important point: reminds us that it’s even okay to feel this way in our relationship with God
              • Sometimes we pray and pray for something, but God’s answer is not the answer we want.
                • Healing
                • Life change (new job, home, etc.)
                • Relationship
              • Sometimes we become so overwhelmed and so frustrated by things in our life that are out of our control (or seem to be out of our control) that we have to vent those frustrations on someone.
                • God = the easiest one
                • God = the only one
  • We know about this risk. We understand this risk. We’ve even experienced the ache that love sometimes brings. And yet, we continue to love. It’s human nature to seek out others with whom we can be in relationship. → relationships/importance of love anchors our hearts and our lives
    • Describe ourselves in terms of our relationships – I am Mark and Dianne’s daughter, David’s sister, Peter’s wife, Luke and Ian’s mom, Megan’s friend, [Oronoco’s]/[Zumbrota’s] pastor.
    • Organize and schedule our lives in terms of our relationships
      • Appointments
      • Holiday gatherings
      • Free time activities
    • Look for approval and support and affirmation from those whom we love → seek them out when we have questions, sorrow, celebrations, even mundane nothings
      • E.g. – talk to Mom almost every day, whether we have anything particular to talk about or not
    • See central nature of love in NT text
      • Loving one another
      • Loving God
      • Speaks to what a central role love plays in faith: This is how God shows his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might light through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about – not that we once upon a time loved God, but that [God] loved us and sent [God’s] Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sin and the damage they’ve done in our relationship with God.[8]
        • God’s love began it when God came to us in the humble, vulnerable form of a tiny baby – the Christ-Child.
        • God’s love was alive in Christ as he lived and ministered to those in the greatest need, those whom society had overlooked and deemed unlovable.
          • Love that was far from easy/comfortable all the time
          • Led Christ to that ultimate act of life – offering his very life for us to “clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God”[9] (Scripture)
        • God’s love continues to be active in this world in us and through us when we model our actions on Christ.
          • See reconciling capability of love in OT text: Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer. … Fix my eyes on God – soon I’ll be praising again. [God] puts a smile on my face. He’s my God.[10]
            • Well-known phase throughout history: Love conquers all.
          • Our hands become Christ’s compassionate hands
          • Our eyes and our hearts become open to those whom society continued to push aside – those who are …
            • Poor
            • Mental illness
            • “Just too different”
          • Scholar: God’s love is creative. As surely as God breathed life into our earthly frames, God continues to create and to sustain in us a capacity for love.[11]
            • Scripture doesn’t say God only loves this specific group or that specific group
            • Doesn’t say we’re only supposed to love this person or that person
            • Instruction is simple: First we were loved, now we love. … Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.[12] Amen.

[1] Susan Wojciechowski. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 1995), 18-25.

[2] Wojciechowski, 21.

[3] Wojciechowski, 18.

[4] Wojciechowski, 21.

[5] Wojciechowski, 24.

[6] Wojciechowski, 23.

[7] Ps 42:3a, 7.

[8] 1 Jn 4:9-10, 29.

[9] 1 Jn 4:10.

[10] Ps 42: 7b-8, 11b.

[11] C. Clifton Black. “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 1998), 433.

[12] 1 Jn 4:19a, 21.

Sunday’s Sermon: Determined to Break Through

Texts for this sermon: Isaiah 11:6-11a and John 1:1-5, 9-14

This year, we will be using the picture book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (ill. by P.J. Lynch) throughout our Advent sermon series. For copyright purposes, I will not be able to share the entirety of that story within the content of these blog posts, but I do encourage you to either check this book out from your local library or purchase a copy for your own personal library. It’s an incredible story with stunning illustrations.

jonathan toomey cover

  • Describe idea of sermon series – narrating Advent journey through lens of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey[1]
    • Brief overview of story up to this point
    • So let’s jump right into more of Jonathan’s story this morning – [read Toomey, pt. 2, pp. 10-17]
      • Last week, we talked about rocky beginnings – about the heartache that caused Jonathan Toomey’s beginning in this story to be so rocky, about Joseph’s rocky start to Jesus’ story.
        • Still see a lot of that rockiness in today’s part of the story
          • Answers the door “muttering and sputtering,”[2] “griping and grumbling”[3]
          • Continues to grumble and declare things are “pish-posh”[4]
          • Continues to act bearish and unapproachable around Thomas and Widow McDowell
        • Certainly see potential for rockiness in OT reading[5] – natural enemies (predators/prey) sharing intimate space
          • Wolf and lamb
          • Leopard and goat kid
          • Lion and calf
          • Bear and cow
          • Deadly snakes and small children
          • The scenarios that could play out in the midst of this set-up are at best something out of Wild Kingdom and at worst a parent’s worst nightmare. There are all sorts of possibilities for violence, disaster, and pain. → sound at all like the world we live in?
            • Needless deaths of black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin
            • 200 Nigerian girls can be kidnapped by militant group just because they’re girls trying to learn
            • Bullying in our schools and especially online has reached level of such intensity that 1 in 6 high school students have seriously considered suicide while 1 in 12 have at least attempted it[6]
            • Friends, the world we live in is a world in need of Light. A world in need of grace. A world in need of peace. But as we well know, sometimes it can be hard to find that light, that grace, that peace – to let something or someone break through the rockiness and bring in the Light.
              • Jonathan Toomey = perfect e.g. of that need
                • Grief and loss are all he can see → needs someone to bring light back into his life … someone, perhaps, like a precocious, wiggly little seven-year-old boy.
  • Interesting. A child … a little boy … bringing in the light. Sounds familiar?
    • Is – in the face of all those unlikely predatory/prey pairing: a little child will tend/lead/guide them[7]
    • Jn: The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. … What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.[8]
      • What I love about The Message translation here → Eugene Peterson really captures the dramatic, attention-grabbing way that God breaks into the human story here.
        • “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness” – Gr. = powerful light, engulfing light, awe-inspiring light, light as bright as the dawn breaking over the horizon
      • Another important point that gets a little lost in this translation
        • 2 parts to that last sentence
          • 1st half: The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness. = Gr. is just as the sentence is translated – past-tense → The Light came blazing and breaking into the darkness in the birth of Christ – a particular event that cannot be repeated.
            • Scholar: The Word becoming flesh is the decisive event in human history – indeed, the history of creation – because the incarnation changes God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God. The incarnation means human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. … The relationship between divine and human is transformed, because in the incarnation human beings are given intimate, palpable access to the cosmic reality of God.[9]
          • 2nd half: the darkness couldn’t put it out = Gr. in this part is special – continuous verb, more like “the darkness will not put it out” → There is a timelessness in this sentence. While the coming of the Light was a singular event, this part of the sentence recognizes that even though the darkness remains a part of our lives, so does the One with the power to overcome that darkness. “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness, but the darkness will not ever be able to put it out.”
  • Nothing about this breaking-in is easy – takes serious dedication and determination
    • Tenacity reminiscent of little Thomas → Imagine how apprehensive he must have felt given …
      • Jonathan Toomey’s reputation – remember village children’s nickname for him: Mr. Gloomy
      • Jonathan Toomey’s demeanor
        • Constantly “mumbling and grumbling, muttering and sputtering, grumping and griping”[10]
        • Doesn’t even speak to Thomas at first – Thomas works up the nerve to ask a question, Jonathan Toomey’s response: The woodcarver glared at Thomas, then shrugged his shoulders and grunted. Thomas decided it meant “yes,” so he went on. “Is that my sheep you’re carving?” The woodcarver nodded and grunted again.[11] → Okay, I’m almost 31 years old, and the thought of finding myself in Thomas’ shoes – faced with such a seemingly-insurmountable barrier – is intimidating to me.
      • And just think how many seemingly-insurmountable barriers are a part of our daily lives. – Jn talks about this: [The Life-Light] was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him.[12]
        • Things that keep us from noticing – that get in the way of our relationships with each other, things that get in the way of our relationship with God
          • Pride
          • Stress
          • Grief
          • Prejudices
          • Unrealistic expectations
        • Thankfully, God shares Thomas’ tenacity. – particularly beautiful and inspiring in-breaking in Jn: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.[13] → Friends, God loves this world and all the people in it so much that God chose to “move into [our] neighborhood” – to experience life the way we experience it with all its ups and downs, all its joys and pains, all its stress and inspiration and uncertainty and love. What an incredible way to express that devotion and determination.
          • Scholar: God did not stay distant from [humanity], remote and isolated; father, in Jesus, God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion, and pain. … To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die. The incarnation binds Jesus to the “everydayness” of human experience.[14]
          • God:
            • “You’re struggling? Let me struggle alongside you.”
            • “You’re hurting? Let me share that burden.”
            • “You’re celebrating? Let me celebrate with you.”
  • Now, I have to tell you that this is one of those times when I really wish I could share the illustrations in this book with you. When you listen to the story, while Thomas’ determination to break through Jonathan Toomey’s tough outer shell is palpable, it’s hard to tell in these few pages whether it’s actually working.
    • Only faint glimmer in words – Jonathan Toomey’s brusque mention to Widow McDowell at the start of their 2nd visit that the teapot is warm à slightest hint of reaching out
    • Pictures – each page includes a small illustration
      • Two sheep that look distinctly happy
      • One cow that is unmistakably proud
    • Sometimes God breaks into our lives in dramatic, awe-inspiring ways like a powerful light dawning. And sometimes God breaks into our lives in ways that are more subtle, more indirect, more gradual. But make no mistake, friends, God’s love for each and every person on this earth is so strong that God is determined to break through so that all are free to feel and participate in that love. Amen.

[1] Susan Wojciechowski. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press), 1995.

[2] Wojciechowski, 10.

[3] Wojciechowski, 14.

[4] Wojciechowski, 13.

[5] Is 11:6-8.

[6] Meghan Neal. “1 in 12 teens have attempted suicide: CDC finds suicide among high school students on the rise” in New York Daily News, 9 June 2012. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/1-12-teens-attempted-suicide-report-article-1.1092622, accessed 7 Dec. 2014.

[7] Is 11:6.

[8] Jn 1:1, 4.

[9] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 524.

[10] Wojciechowski, 2.

[11] Wojciechowski, 13.

[12] Jn 1:10-11.

[13] Jn 1:14.

[14] O’Day, 525-526.

Sunday’s Sermon: A Rocky Start to a Miracle

Texts for this sermon: Psalm 6 and Matthew 1:18-25
* A note about Scripture readings: We’ve recently decided to start reading our Sunday morning passages from Eugene Peterson’s translation known as “The Message.” People often find this text more conversational, more colloquial, and easier to read and understand.*

jonathan toomey cover

This year, we will be using the picture book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (ill. by P.J. Lynch) throughout our Advent sermon series. For copyright purposes, I will not be able to share the entirety of that story within the content of these blog posts, but I do encourage you to either check this book out from your local library or purchase a copy for your own personal library. It’s an incredible story with stunning illustrations.

  • Everyone has a favorite Christmas story.
    • Books: Santa’s Favorite Story[1], The Night Before Christmas[2]
    • Movies: A Christmas Story[3], Miracle on 34th Street[4]
    • Even story-songs: “Frosty the Snowman”[5]
    • Christmas stories = important
      • Familiar words/cadences provide intimacy → help prepare hearts, spirits, minds for the season
      • Bring to mind memories of times past when we’ve experienced the story (hearing, seeing, singing, etc.)
    • And as we begin this year’s Advent journey together, we’re joining our stories – the individual narratives of our daily lives – together with the Grand Story.
      • Christian Story
      • Story of Salvation
      • Story of God’s greatest gift in the birth of Christ
      • And as we once again approach the beginning of this story, we’re going to do so through the lens of yet another story – a powerful Christmas tale written by Susan Wojciechowski: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.[6]
        • Before we begin reading → copy of the book at church
          • Catch up if you miss a Sunday
          • Experience the beautiful illustrations of P.J. Lynch
          • Just promise me you won’t read ahead and spoil the ending for yourself! J
  • And so, we begin … [read pt. 1 of Jonathan Toomey, pp. 2-9]
    • “The children in the village called him Mr. Gloomy.” Friends, among the glitz and glamour, the brightness and baubles of the holiday season, we are reminded that not all stories begin with an easy smile.
      • Taught from an early age that stories are supposed to have a happy beginning
        • Disney = huge perpetrator of this notion – not many of their wildly popular “Princess” stories begin darkly
          • Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, even Elsa and Anna from recent hit “Frozen” → feature happy, beautiful, blessed little princesses … until that dark wicked witch/queen/evil enchantress butts in
        • Basic make-up of just about any sitcom or romantic comedy plotline or even most action movies → things are great and wonderful and blissful … until they’re not
      • These are all stories that start off with a chipper, “Once upon a time …” But what happens when the beginning of a story is closer to …
        • Once upon a hardship?
        • Once upon a misunderstanding?
        • Once upon a heartache?
        • These may not be the bedtimes stories that we like to share with our children at night, but we cannot help but acknowledge that sometimes, these are the stories that play out in our lives. These are our realities. These are our “once upon a time”s.
  • In fact, all of our stories today – our Scripture stories and Jonathan Toomey’s story – get off to a rocky start, a less-than-perfect beginning.
    • Jonathan Toomey’s story speaks of a surly, ill-tempered man whose life has been ravaged by tremendous loss and heartache
      • Man living in grief
      • Man living in pain
      • Man living in self-imposed isolation
    • Scripture story of Joseph – rocky beginning, too
      • Joseph’s first and most in-depth introduction in Scripture
        • Only other account we have of Jesus’ birth (Luke) – simply named as Mary’s betrothed[7]
        • As far as context goes, the text that we read today is what kicks off Jesus’ birth narrative according to Matthew. The only thing that appears before it in the gospel is that long list of Jesus’ lineage (“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob” all the way down to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus).
      • And what a difficult introduction this is for Joseph! Imagine what this must have been like for him.
        • Engaged to Mary – text: Joseph discovered she was pregnant.[8] → I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but wonder how Joseph found out. Did Mary tell him? Was she starting to show? Did he hear a rumor?
        • However it happened, Joseph discovered Mary’s delicate situation, and being “chagrined but noble” (as our text put it), Joseph “determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.”[9]
          • Hear Joseph’s pain in this
          • Hear Joseph’s discomfort in this
            • Rocky, rocky start
          • And we can sympathize with both Jonathan and Joseph’s rocky starts, can’t we? We want things to be happy, to be peaceful, to be comfortable and acceptable and copacetic. We don’t like conflict. We don’t like pain. We don’t like hardship and struggle. But sometimes that’s where we land.
            • Hear frustration and distress caused by this predicament voiced in Ps – text: Please, God … treat me nice for change … Can’t you see I’m black and blue … My bed has been floating forty days and nights on the flood of my tears. My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.[10] → Haven’t we all had moments … days … weeks … maybe even years like this?!
              • Sounds like Jonathan Toomey’s journey – after the deaths of his wife and son: Jonathan Toomey had packed his belongings into a wagon and traveled till his tears stopped.[11]
  • So here we find ourselves at the beginning of another Advent journey – a journey during a season which is marked by a certain amount of darkness, both in terms of the church calendar and of nature itself.
    • Darkness of the shortening days and lengthening nights
    • Darkness of the world waiting for the birth of a Savior
    • Darkness echoed in the words of our ps: I can’t sing in your choir if I’m buried in some tomb! I’m tired of all this – so tired.[12]
    • And yet, in the face of this darkness, despite whatever rocky beginnings our stories may include, there is a growing light – the light of the coming Christ Child.
      • theologian Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book: Learning to Walk in the Dark[13] → addresses idea of finding God in those dark places
        • Scary places
        • Lonely places
        • Bleak places
        • Taylor reassures us: Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. … Here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.[14]
      • See God’s brightness shining in the ps: My requests have all been granted, my prayers are answered.[15]
      • See God’s brightness shining in Joseph’s story: While [Joseph] was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus – ‘God saves’ – because he will save his people from their sins.” … Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream.[16]
      • And I promise you there is light in Jonathan Toomey’s story, too … but I’m not going to give that part away. For that, you’ll just have to come back next week.
        • Waiting for the rest of Jonathan Toomey’s story = appropriate because sometimes we have to wait for the light
          • Difficult in our culture of instant gratification – answers and shopping and communication and just about anything we want literally right at our fingertips
          • But that’s what this season of Advent is about: waiting and watching as that pin-prick of light grows ever brighter and ever closer in the darkness.
            • Light of hope
            • Light of salvation
            • Light of Christ
            • Amen.

[1] Hisako Aoki. Santa’s Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), 1991.

[2] Clement Clarke Moore. “A Visit (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)” in Sentinel – Troy, New York, 23 Dec. 1823.

[3] Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, & Bob Clark. A Christmas Story, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, 18 Nov. 1983.

[4] Valentine Davies & George Seaton. Miracle on 34th Street, released by 20th Century Fox, 2 May 1947.

[5] Jack Rollins & Steve Nelson. “Frosty the Snowman,” originally recorded by Gene Autry & the Cass Country Boys, released by Columbia Records, 14 Dec. 1950.

[6] Susan Wojciechowski. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press), 1995.

[7] Lk 1:27.

[8] Mt 1:18.

[9] Mt 1:19.

[10] Ps 6:1, 2, 6b.

[11] Wojciechowski, 6.

[12] Ps 6:5b-6a.

[13] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark. (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2014.

[14] Taylor, 16.

[15] Ps 6:9.

[16] Mt 1:20-21, 24.

December newsletter piece

advent candles FB cover

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows – light! Sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings. … For a child has been born – for us! The gift of a son – for us! ~ Isaiah 9:2-3

Of all the passages of Scripture that we read during the Advent and Christmas seasons, this has always been my favorite. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived my whole life in the Midwest – a place of beauty, to be sure, but a place that, during the winter months, can feel cold and dark. Surely “a land of deep shadows.”

And in our lives, how often have we found ourselves walking in darkness? There are any number of things that at times can and do blot out the light, plunging our hearts and our spirits into darkness – illness, fear, uncertainty, stress, grief. We continue to move through life during these times, but we still feel that darkness. It eclipses everything else and dulls our reaction. Isaiah’s words may have originally been spoken for the people of Israel, but they continue to resonate with us today. Surely, we know what it’s like to be people who walk in darkness.

For the church, Advent is a season of waiting … a season of expectation … a season of darkness as we anticipate the coming of the Light. Today, it’s easy for us to forget that part of Advent. Our to-do lists are so long. We have cookies to bake, presents to buy and wrap, trees and homes to decorate, carols to sing, loved ones to visit, favorite holiday movies to watch, Christmas cards/letters to write and send. We are surrounded by the glitz and sparkle of advertisements and lights. But sometimes this light only serves to make the darkness feel even thicker, even heavier, even darker.

And yet, in the face of this darkness, Isaiah speaks of another Light – “sunbursts of light,” even! The Hebrew word that Isaiah uses is the same word that gets used to describe daybreak, a Light so vivid and bright that it seems almost alive. In the face of our deepest darkness, this Light shines. And as John’s gospel tells us, this is a Light that cannot be extinguished.

What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out. ~ John 1:4-5.

And where do we find this Light? In his own beautiful way, Isaiah tells us. “For a child has been born – for us! The gift of a son – for us!”

There is light in the eyes of a baby. There is light in a baby’s smile, in a baby’s laugh, in the peaceful look on a sleeping baby’s face. But the Light that this child is about to bring goes beyond that light. The Light that is coming is one of salvation and grace and peace beyond measure. The Light that is coming will banish every darkness forever and wrap us in a love that we cannot even begin to imagine. This is the Light for which we wait during the Advent season. This is the Light which dawns anew for us each Christmas morning.

And so in the midst of this dark and cold season, in the midst of the twinkling lights and the red and green sprinkles, we pray …

Come, Lord Jesus, come.