Christmas Eve Message

Empty manger at night

Text used – Luke 2:1-20

  • It’s a busy time of year, isn’t it?
    • Shopping
    • Wrapping
    • Cooking
    • Baking
    • Decorating
    • Visiting
    • Cleaning
    • Mailing
      • Packages
      • Christmas cards
    • I know I can’t be the only one in this room this evening who feels like they’ve been running, flitting from one task to the next like a crazed hummingbird. This is a busy time of year, full of to-do lists and expectations.
      • Expectations we place upon ourselves → list of cookies that you “have” to make every year because “it’s tradition … it’s what we do at Christmas time”
      • Expectations placed on us by society → perfect-looking house inside and out – lights, garland, Christmas tree, decorations, etc.
      • Expectations placed on us by loved ones → one of my best friends from high school has 5 family Christmases to get to between her family and her spouse’s family!
    • It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy these activities. Some of them are indeed traditions that we treasure – the things that “make the holiday” for us. For example, I love sending Christmas cards – designing the photo card, writing the yearly update letter, stuffing the envelopes, attaching the special Christmas seal, and even addressing them. It’s one of my favorite things to do during the holidays. But as those boxes of cards and sheets of stamps and seals and everything sit on my dining room table (or floor) day after day as I work my way through our list, even this beloved activity becomes another thing on the to-do list. Another expectation.
  • But when we stop to think about it, are these truly the things that “make the holiday”? What would we do if we couldn’t bake those 14 types of cookies? What if we couldn’t engage in the hunt for that “perfect” Christmas gift? What if we couldn’t decorate or wrap or even visit? Would it still be Christmas?
    • According to the sage and ever-entertaining Dr. Seuss, the answer is yes:

So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow.
But the sound wasn’t sad! Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!
He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”[1]

Grinch

  • Friends, as much fun as all the trimmings and trappings of this holiday season can be, all of those things are not what bring us here to these pews tonight … to this sanctuary … to this sacred space and time. We do not gather to sing and pray and celebrate communion together because of the shopping sprees and the tinsel and the chaos of Christmas. We come for the manger. We come for the baby. We come for the miracle. We come for the holy moment. We come in search not of another thing to do but a place to pause. We come in search of our kneeling places.
    • Poem by Ann Weems: “In Search of Our Kneeling Places[2]
    • Yes, it’s true that even our Scripture reading this evening – even that familiar Christmas story that we know and love – is bustling with activity.
      • Mary and Joseph knocking on doors, searching and searching and searching for that place to rest their weary heads
      • The exertion and anxiousness and excitement of the birth
      • Angels appearing in the darkness of the hills and filling the sky with light and song
      • Shepherds hurrying to the manger-side
      • Mary and Joseph welcoming the shepherds into what was surely an awkward and personal and precious moment just after the birth of the Christ Child
      • The incredible, audacious nature of the shepherds’ report
      • But in the midst of all that holy hustle and bustle, there is Mary, quietly and steadfastly remaining in her kneeling place despite all that is going on around her and even inside her – text: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.[3]
        • Scholar: Finally, we have a blessing of peace. God sends us peace. God does not desire huge festivals, frantic preparations, or wish us boundless energy to do everything. Rather, God wishes us peace.[4]
  • On Sunday mornings in this congregation, we take a few moments of silence at the beginning of every service. It’s meant to be a time when we can refocus ourselves, when we can set aside all of those things that distract us – worries, to-do lists, and everything else. We set aside that special time so that we can prepare our hearts and our minds to intentionally encounter God in our worship. That time at the beginning of our service is our kneeling place. And tonight is no different. Yes, there are certainly still things to do – gifts to open, meals to prepare, Christmas songs to sing and stories to read, family Christmases to attend, and so on. But let this time … this night … this worship be your kneeling place – your time to pause, to reflect, to open your heart and your whole self to the worship of the miracle of the birth of Christ. Friends, let us go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places so that we can wholly and committedly say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Child.” Amen.

[1] Dr. Seuss. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (New York, NY: Random House, 1957), 42-48.

[2] Ann Weems. “In Search of Our Kneeling Places” in Kneeling in Bethlehem. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1987), 19.

[3] Lk 2:19 (NRSV).

[4] Aaron Klink. “Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-14 (15-20) – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 120.

Sunday’s sermon: Giving and Receiving

giving and receiving

Texts used – Isaiah 9:2-7 and John 1:1-18

  • During the Christmas season, we spend a lot of time and energy on finding The Perfect Gift, don’t we? Trying to come up with what that “perfect” item might be … hunting down that “perfect” item, be it in a store or online … fretting about whether we’ve made the “perfect” decision or whether we should have come up with something else. For some, this hunt can become all-consuming.
    • Not necessarily a bad thing – most often comes from a place of love → We love our family and friends, and we want to find a gift that’s going to make them happy – something that will make their faces light up.
    • The problem = when we become so preoccupied with the gift itself that we forget why we’re giving it
      • Too wrapped up in the hunt itself
      • So fixated on the “perfect” part that we lose sight of the “gift” part
      • Giving in order to get the accolades for finding the “perfect” gift instead of giving for the sheer joy of giving
      • Giving should be an act of selflessness, an act of love, right?
  • I want to read you a story this morning. – [READ “THE GIFT OF THE MAGI”[1]]
    • Story of giving and receiving not from a place of lavishness or excess but a place of pure love, pure selflessness
    • Hmmm … I think I know another story about a precious gift given in pure, selfless love.
  • Friends, today we’re talking about giving and receiving – a concept that has become oh so commercialized during this Christmas season but which has a whole different meaning when it comes to the Christmas story we know and love as Christians. For it was at Christmas – that very first Christmas in Bethlehem of Judea, in an obscure and drafty stable, in a rough and dingy feeding trough filled with straw – that God sent humanity the greatest gift of all: Love Incarnate. Hope Incarnate. Grace Incarnate. God With Us in the humble, unassuming, vulnerable form of a baby.
  • Gift proclaimed in clear and powerful language in our OT passage this morning – text: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. … A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.[2]
    • Echoes of this gift in our NT passage as well: Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.[3]
      • Gift of grace
      • Gift of peace
      • Gift of hope in dark places
      • Gift of inextinguishable Light → Notice that the verse says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it.” The rest of the passage is written in past tense, but that single verse is in the present active That’s a tense that is a little too nuanced for English, but in Greek, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It is present – it is existing, it is current, it is unceasing. And it is active – it is dynamic, it is involved, it is stirring. This Light is brighter than even the most persistent darkness, and it is this Light that surrounds us. It is this Light that holds us and keeps us. It is this Light that comes for us, born tonight in that humble manger and laid to sleep in that feeding trough. This Light – a light of hope and joy and forgiveness and reassurance – is the greatest gift ever given in the history of the world.
        • Given freely
        • Given from a place of pure love and selflessness
        • Given without strings attached
        • Given willingly by God
  • Now, I want you to notice something else this morning: In both our Old Testament and New Testament readings that there are no qualifications placed on that gift. Neither Scripture readings says anything about meeting a laundry list of requirements in order to be worthy of this gift. So why is it that so often, we feel like we have to earn it? We feel like we have to do something … say something … be something specific in order to receive this gift that God simply want to give to us … just because we are us?
    • Song that we’re going to listen to this morning speaks to that → [PLAY “Little Drummer Boy” sung by Pentatonix[4]
      • Song begins with those expectations placed not by God but by others, “Come, they told me … a newborn King to see … Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King … so to honor him when we come.” → The implication is that only the finest gifts are appropriate and acceptable. And so often, we get that message from the world around us, especially this time of year.
        • Jewelry commercials
        • Electronics commercials
        • store commercials
        • Perfume/cologne commercials
        • Car commercials (I literally no nobody who has ever actually gotten a brand-spanking, shiny, new car for Christmas)
        • You name it, someone will be trying to convince you that your life will be better, brighter, fuller, whatever-er if you buy this gift. It will show your loved one just how much you truly care.
      • But then we come to the sticking point: Little baby, I am a poor boy, too … I have no gift to bring, to lay before the King à Pause there for one second. “I am a poor boy, TOO.”
        • Recognizes the humble estate into which Jesus – God Incarnate – was born → not a palace, not even a wealthy merchant’s home, not even the actual paid-for room of an inn!, but a stable
          • Probably not the pristine stable that artists like to depict either → Y’all either are farmers or you know farmers. Have you ever seen a consistently-used stable that was that clean? That tidy? Spoiler alert: It doesn’t exist. That stable was messy. That stable was dirty. That stable was stinky. But it was warm, and safe, and the perfect place for God to enter into not only the pristine moments of our lives but the truly mucky, messy ones as well.
            • Jn: The Word became flesh and made his home among us (messy and crazy and messed up, though we are). And we have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.[5]
  • Friends, we know how the song ends: Shall I play for you? Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for him. I played by best for him. Then he smiled at me, me and my drum. → It’s not about the shiniest gift. It’s not about the most elaborate gift or the most expensive gift. It’s about the genuineness and the love behind the gift. And it’s about the grace and gratitude with which the gift is received.
    • Jn: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.[6] Alleluia! Amen.

[1] O. Henry. “The Gift of the Magi,” https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/1-the_gift_of_the_magi_0.pdf.

[2] Is 9:2-3, 6.

[3] Jn 1:3-5.

[4] “Little Drummer Boy” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “PTXmas: Deluxe Edition,” RCA Records, 2014.

[5] Jn 1:14 (with embellishment).

[6] Jn 1:16-17.

Sunday’s sermon: Mary, Did You Know?

annunciation

Texts used – Psalm 126; Luke 1:26-55

  • Reminder of our Advent sermon series this year (since we missed last week … thank you, laryngitis!)
    • In the midst of all the busyness and activity of the Christmas holiday season, Advent = special, sacred time of waiting à time to pause – to take a breath or two – and focus on our thoughts and words and actions in this in-between time
    • This year: considering familiar songs/hymns of the season and how they help us wait
  • Now, before we listen to our song for this week, I want to touch on where we are in the Advent cycle. During our Advent candle lighting this morning, you may have noticed something a little different. For the past few weeks, we’ve lit only purple candles, but today, we lit the pink one as well. That’s because today is a special Sunday in the Advent cycle. In many traditions, it’s called Gaudete Sunday.
    • Each Advent candle = dedicated to a theme → themes vary BUT most common: 1st) hope, 2nd) peace, 3rd) joy, 4th) love
    • Back in the early days of the church, Advent was treated more like Lent
      • Time of repentance and atonement
      • Time of intense self-reflection
      • Somber, earnest season → far cry from lightheartedness we often seek to experience in this season today
      • And in the face of all this serious reflection and repentance, this 3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday – became a bit of a break: a time to relish the joy and lightness of the coming of the Savior.
        • “Gaudete” = “break” in Latin
    • But we have to admit that sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes, that seriousness, that severity, that darkness – of the world around us, of the headlines that vie for our attention every morning, of the thoughts and worries that consume our day-to-day … sometimes we can become too overwhelmed by all of those fears and unanswered questions to be able to fully acknowledge and appreciate that joy.
      • Part of the reason = we are functioning with a confused definition of “joy” → If I were to ask you what “joy” means, I would guess that a lot of people would tell me something like, “Joy means happiness,” or “Joy means being happy.” But the late Henri Nouwen – priest, prolific author, and spiritual mentor – outlined the crucial difference between happiness and joy: Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away. Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.[1]
  • And especially in light of our New Testament reading this morning, that definition – “joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing can take that love away” – brought Mary starkly to mind for me this week.
    • Mary, mother of Jesus = interesting figure in religious history
      • Mentioned only a handful of times throughout Scripture[2]
        • Vast majority of those times happen during the birth narratives in Mt and Lk
        • Two brief appearances early in Jesus’ ministry
        • Disappears until we see her again at the foot of the cross
      • And yet, despite this sparse Biblical presence, Mary has been a point of fascination and great theological development and debate for millennia.
        • Especially lifted up in Catholicism – veneration began as far back as the 4th CE and was declared doctrine at the Council of Ephesus in 431[3]
        • Quick and simple Amazon search for books on “virgin Mary” = 5333 hits
    • As Protestants, we probably think about Mary, the mother of Jesus more during this time of year than any other. But how often do we really think about the circumstances that Mary was facing?
      • Very young woman (marrying age at that time was early teens)
      • Engaged (probably an arranged marriage at the time)
      • Suddenly visited by an angel and told that she was going to bear the child of God → So Mary was going to be pregnant … and unmarried … at a time when any kind of pre-marital relations was a punishable offense – punishable almost exclusively on the part of women, might I add.
        • Text: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule of Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. …” Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.[4]  → “Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.” What was running through Mary’s head at that moment? What was she unhappy about? What fears and worries plagued her heart? What crucial questions sprang to her mind just after “the angel left her”? We cannot deny that even in all her grace-filled obedience, Mary is put in a truly difficult position here. She was already engaged to Joseph. She most certainly had a life that she had been envisioning – plans and dreams and expectations. And I think we can be sure that a pre-marital baby from God wasn’t a part of those dreams. That was a lot to come crashing down on Mary all in the span of a few seemingly-simple sentences: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. … The one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.” And yet, in the face of all of that, Mary expresses JOY.
          • Words to Elizabeth: With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.[5]
            • Echoes the words of our psalm → ancient words of Hebrew worship with which Mary would have been familiar: When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming. Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts. It was even said, at that time, among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them!” Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.[6]
    • Not surprisingly, as I think about Mary and all that she may have been going through, the more recent Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?” came to mind. [PLAY “Mary, Did You Know?” sung by Pentatonix[7]]  → The song itself is powerful in the way it’s written – the way the music progresses, the strength and haunting quality of the minor key in which it’s written. But while the musicality of the song draws us in, it is the words that catch us and hold us and tug at our hearts – the potent combination of joy and anxiousness that they convey, the questions that I wish I could ask Mary myself. Yes, Mary was told by Gabriel that her child would be called the Son of God. Yes, Mary was told by Gabriel that her son would be “great … He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” But did she know …
      • The miracles that Jesus would perform?
      • The healing that would come from his very fingertips?
      • That he would not only be called the Son of God but that he would indeed be God Incarnate?
      • Did she know about the fate that awaited her precious baby boy? The arrest, the mocking and torment, the horrors of the crucifixion, the unimaginable glory of the resurrection? Gabriel didn’t mention anything about the specifics of what Mary was in for raising this Son of the Most High. He simply told her that she would be blessed … and she trusted. She believed. She even rejoiced.
  • End today with a picture of Mary that I want to encourage you to ponder: part of poem “Annunciation” by Denise Leverov

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite wisdom and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
Spirit,
suspended,
waiting.

 

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy.’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Amen.

[1] http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/excerpts/view/14116.

[2] http://home.earthlink.net/~mysticalrose/marian17.html.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veneration_of_Mary_in_the_Catholic_Church.

[4] Lk 1:30-35, 38.

[5] Lk 1:46-50.

[6] Ps 126:1-3.

[7] “Mary, Did You Know?” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “That’s Christmas to Me,” RCA Records, 2014.

Sunday’s sermon: Waiting in the Mystery

This sermon is from Dec. 3, 2017. Due to illness (thank you, laryngitis), we had a hymnsing this past Sunday as opposed to a traditional service with a sermon. Hopefully, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week! 

waiting mystery

Texts used – Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

  • I want to ask you all a question this morning … and yes, you can actually answer it – like – out loud … with your voices. What are some of your favorite Christmas songs? [PAUSE] Okay … and why are they your favorite? [PAUSE] Music and songs evoke powerful memories and emotions in us, don’t they?
    • Music activates many different regions in the brain all at one time – the auditory region (processes sound), the motor region (processes rhythm), and the limbic region (processes emotional response)
      • Hymns/songs are very often used in nursing homes and memory care facilities for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia as a way to reach people who often feel beyond reach → Even people who have lost the ability to convey coherent sentences will still be able to sing along or tap out the rhythm to old familiar songs.
        • Story of Margaret – nursing home resident who could no longer speak but would hum and tap out the rhythm to old, familiar hymns and songs and mouth the words to familiar prayers
    • Holidays and Christmas music are especially prone to this sort of lyrical nostalgia → For whatever reason, Christmas songs almost always bring us back to former times and places, making us smile, laugh, dance, sing, and maybe shed a tear or two.
  • So throughout Advent, we’ll be looking at and listening to some of these favorite Christmas songs, thinking about how they enhance and inform our faith as we wait for the coming of the Christ Child. – key word = “wait” → So many of our “typical” Christmastime activities include busy, hustle-bustle, glitz-and-glitter preparations – decorating houses, baking cooking, wrapping presents, and so on. And those are all wonderful, joyful, fun holiday activities. BUT those are also all activities focused on Christmas itself – on the day 23 days from now. In the cycles and seasons of the church, Advent is a special time – a different kind of time.
    • Time for preparation, yes, but a different kind of preparation → time for intentionally waiting
      • Time for self-examination
      • Time for prayer and reflection
      • Time to pause from all the busyness of the world around us and focus on our thoughts and words and actions in this in-between time
      • Similar to Lent in its attitude of preparation – often called “Little Lent” in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions
      • So throughout Advent, we’re going to be approaching these favorite hymns and songs from the angle of how they help us wait, how they help us prepare not our houses and our trees but our hearts and our souls.
  • Today’s song = O Come, O Come Emmanuel
    • A bit of an odd song for Christmastime
      • Not upbeat, bells-a-jingling sort of Christmas son we’re used to
      • Slow tempo and minor key making it a haunting, pensive, pondering sort of song
      • Includes odd phrases like “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here”
    • But in terms of celebrating Advent – this in-between time of waiting and pondering – the message of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is crucial because it reminds us what it is that we’re waiting for: the coming of the Christ Child.
  • [LISTEN TO THE SONG – “O COME, O COME EMMANUEL” sung by Penatonix[1]] → powerful song because it speaks to so many aspects of our waiting
    • Speaks to the waiting of the past – the history of faith (story of the Israelites)
    • Speaks to our current waiting – “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emannuel shall come to thee, O Israel”
      • Especially some of the other verses (#116 in black hymnal[2]):
        • 6: O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by your Advent here; Love stir within the womb of night and death’s own shadows put to flight.
        • 7: O come, Desire of Nations, bind all people’s in one heart and mind; make envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
    • Speaks to the spirit of our waiting
      • Waiting and pondering
      • Waiting and reflecting
      • Waiting in that haunting, powerful mystery of God coming down to earth not in the form of a mighty and magnificent conqueror but a helpless, vulnerable human child
  • Hear all of this echoed in our Scripture passages this morning, too
    • Ps 80 = call for God to come into our waiting
      • Text: Shepherd of Israel, listen! … Let your hand be with the one on your right side – with the one whom you secured as your own – then we will not turn away from you! Revive us so that we can call on your name.[3]
      • Text: Restore us, God! Make your face shine so that we can be saved![4] (repeated 3 times in just a few short verses)
      • In this passage, we hear the desperate plea of God’s people for God’s presence among them – a presence that saves and protects, that strengthens and lifts up. Even though they acknowledge that there have been hardships – “You’ve fed them bread made of tears; you’ve given them tears to drink three times over! You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors; our enemies make fun of us!”[5] – despite those hardships, they cry out for God’s presence among them. They cry out for Emmanuel, God With Us. “O come, o come, Emmanuel!”
  • Gospel passage = a tough one – not a passage we usually associate with the Christmas season → But again, this is when we have to remember that Advent is a season not just about Dec. 25. Advent is a season about preparing for the coming of Christ, both that first time in a manger … and when Christ comes again.
    • 2nd coming of Christ, final in-breaking of God’s Kingdom here on earth = not something we often talk about in mainline churches
    • Certainly not something we talk about often at Christmastime BECAUSE the whole idea of the 2nd coming has been co-opted by ideas of doom and gloom, of fire and brimstone, of the end of the world and rapture and things like that – not things we want to think about among the glitz and glitter of the holiday season → And when we read our passage from Mark this morning, we can see a glimpse of where that idea comes from – text: In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.[6]
      • Purpose of this language discussed in our Coffee and Conversation material last week: This language is designed not so much to foretell specific events as to emphasize with mighty language the universal and final import of the end of the present age and the inauguration of the age to come.[7]
        • More light-hearted comparison = the way the boys use “never” for everything → doesn’t actually mean they’ve never had ice cream, just means they haven’t had it for a while, but the language is much more dramatic and attention grabbing
    • So Jesus is trying to grab our attention with all of this apocalyptic imagery. But we have to remember that this imagery is not the end of the passage … it’s just a short beginning! – Jesus’ continued conversation with the disciples: Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. … What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert![8]
      • Not about what is ending (as is so often emphasized in contemporary end-of-the-world, apocalyptic thinking) but about what is beginning: the kingdom of God on earth – peace, justice, mercy, hope → We believe that Jesus came that first time to teach us about these things – about God’s love for us, about the beauty and everlasting peace of God’s kingdom, about hope and salvation, and to extend God’s immeasurable grace to us. So why, in the face of all that goodness and blessing, would we believe that when he comes again, Christ will bring horror and pain and destruction?
        • Again, Coffee and Conversation material: The emphasis of [this passage] is on being ready to participate in the fulfillment of history; the fullness of what the gospels call the kingdom of God. The message is clear: the priorities of our lives must center around the will of God – justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, life, wholeness, reconciliation, joy. … Until we are consciously aiming our lives toward the promises of God we are not ready to celebrate Christmas.[9]  → That is what Advent is all about. That is what we are preparing ourselves for throughout this season in the life of the church as well as throughout the span of our lives: the fulfillment of the promises of God: justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, life, wholeness, reconciliation, joy. We’re not supposed to know when Christ is coming back. Not even Christ himself knew that! During Advent, we talk a lot about being “people of the promise. And we are. People of the promise of a Savior – a promise of hope and grace and everlasting peace. People of the promise of a Savior who has come, yes, but also of a Savior who will come again to reveal God’s glorious kingdom in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. We are to wait in the mystery. But beyond that, we are to wait embracing the mystery because each new day gives us the chance to embody God’s love and hope and mercy in this world. Each new day gives us the chance to bring about a new sliver of God’s Kingdom. And so in all our watchful and expectant and mystery-soaked waiting, our spirits sing, “O come, o come, Emmaneul!” Amen.

 

CHARGE: Last nugget from last week’s Coffee and Conversation: The season of Advent which prepares us for Christmas focuses our minds, wills, and hearts not on the “end of the world” but on the beginning of life as God would have it lived – the kingdom in all its fullness, “abundant life.”[10] Friends, as you go from this place, go both looking for that kingdom and looking to be that kingdom.

BENEDICTION:
May starlight guide your steps towards this place of wonder,
May angels sing their news as you travel to the manger,
May promise fill these days as we watch at the edge of birth,
And may faith tell you, Emmanuel will be with us soon, in human skin. Amen.

 

[1] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “PTXMas: Deluxe Edition,” RCA Records, 2014.

[2] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” New Century Hymnal. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995), hymn #116.

[3] Ps 80:1a, 17-18.

[4] Ps 80:3, 7, 19.

[5] Ps 80:5-6.

[6] Mk 13:24-26.

[7] Carol J. Miller. “Watchful Expectancy” in The Light Will Shine: A Study for Advent – Leader’s Guide. (Pittsburgh, PA: The Kerygma Program, 1999), 6.

[8] Mk 13:32-33, 37.

[9] Carol J. Miller. “Watchful Expectancy” in The Light Will Shine: A Study for Advent – Resource Book. (Pittsburgh, PA: The Kerygma Program, 1999), 5.

[10] Miller, Resource Book, 6.