Sunday’s sermon: A Question of Credibility

bible

Texts used – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-30

  • [hold up Bible] The Word of God … Holy Scripture … the Holy Writ … the Good Book … or one of my favorites, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (it’s a little simplistic and theologically problematic, but you have to love a clever acronym!) There are a lot of names for the Bible, aren’t there? But whatever we call it, there’s no denying that this is a book that elicits a lot of reactions.
    • Those who are indifferent – who find it no more compelling than any work of fiction you may pull off the shelf at your local library
    • Those who reject and ridicule it
    • Those who even fear it
    • Those who love and revere these words
      • And even among Christians – even among those of us who hold this up as our sacred text – there are vastly differing opinions concerning this book.
        • Differences in translations
          • Straight translations (NRSV)
          • Paraphrases (Good News)
          • Stick close to the original languages (ESV)
          • More colloquial (The Message)
          • Amalgamation of the approaches (CEB)
        • Differences in approach/theology of Scripture
          • Inspired?
          • Inerrant?
      • Yet despite all those different approaches to this book right here, it remains the most read, most sold, and most translated book in the history of the world, with an estimated 100 million copies sold every year in 469 different languages.[1] In my office alone, you can find 12 different versions of the Bible – different translations, different formations, some study Bibles, some regular Bibles … the list goes on and on. So we cannot deny that these words are powerful, powerful words, can we? They carry weight. They carry influence. They carry inspiration.
  • No denying that God’s Word is powerful
    • In texts for today, see …
      • Captivating power → both involve large crowds who, when hear Word of God, are riveted
        • Neh: Facing the area in front of the Water Gate, [Ezra] read [the law] aloud, from early morning until the middle of the day. He read it in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand, and everyone listened attentively to the Instruction scroll.[2]
        • Lk: [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.[3]
        • This is God grabbing the attention of the crowd – of the masses – through the reading of the word. I think that if you were to turn either of these passages into a scene from a movie, they’d be the kind of moment when the background music pauses and everything is silent. The camera pans slowly over a motionless crowd before focusing in on a few faces – people whose eyes are full of excitement and expectation. They don’t know what’s going to happen next, but they know it’s going to be significant.
      • Significant because of transforming power
        • Transformed the lives of the Israelites
          • Neh back story: written after people had returned from Babylonian exile – Jerusalem had been devastated; temple (God’s holiest place) had been completely obliterated; people had been separated from the heart-center of their faith and culture for hundreds of years à And it was into the midst of this weariness, this desolation, this lostness that God’s Word returned to the people in such a powerful way – a way that inspired them to repent and taught them how to rejoice and celebrate again.
        • And the passage from Lk makes it clear that we all need that powerful, transformative Word of God: speaks of the Messiah coming “to liberate the oppressed”[4] – Gr. “oppressed” = literally “the broken ones” → That’s a category we all find ourselves in sometimes, isn’t it? And there are all sorts of ways in which we can be broken: physically, emotionally, spiritually. But the good news of the gospel – that living, breathing Word that interacts with our lives – reminds us that Christ came to set us free from all of those things that break us … to restore our wholeness and to put us back together again.
    • And that brings us back to what’s so amazing about God’s Word: it truly does interact with our lives. There are no boundaries it can’t overcome. There are no situations it can’t speak to. There is no darkness it can’t brighten. So I want you to think for a minute about which Scriptures have brought you inspiration or strength or comfort. This is the Word interacting with you – God reaching down and touching your life.
  • But the Word of God requires more than just simple, passive reading. It requires engagement. The phenomenon of God’s Word being active and interacting with our lives today isn’t complete unless we react – unless we do what we can to be that Word for the world around us. And that’s where our Scripture stories diverge for this morning.
    • Response in Neh – text: They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction. “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our LORD. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the LORD is your strength!”[7] → These people are thrilled to be hearing this Word, even though, being an “Instruction scroll from Moses,” it probably sounded something like this: The LORD said to Moses: Command the Israelites to bring pure, pressed olive oil to you for the lamp, to keep a light burning constantly. Aaron will tend the lamp, which will be inside the meeting tent but outside the inner curtain of the covenant document, from evening until morning before the LORD. This is a permanent rule throughout your future generations. Aaron must continually tend the lights on the pure lampstand before the LORD.[8] It may not have been the most poetic, awe-inspiring work, but remember that these Israelites had been exiled for generations at this point. They hadn’t been able to hear the Scripture of their God in their holy place for more than a century, but here they finally were back in Jerusalem, back at the site of the temple (ruined though it still may have been), listening to the word of their God for them. And they rejoiced! Oh, how they rejoiced!
      • Rejoiced in the hearing
      • Rejoiced in the freedom to hear
      • Rejoiced in the interaction
      • Rejoiced in the ability to once again practice their faith and their culture completely unhindered and unoppressed
      • This is the type of response we want to have when we hear the word of God, isn’t it? Joyful … overflowingly joyful! Attentive. Worshipful. Abundantly thankful.
    • Contrast that reaction with the reaction we encounter in our NT story – text: He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?” Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’” He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. …” When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.[9] → At first, the crowd is amazed by Jesus’ interpretation and teaching. They’re impressed. They’re blown away. But then they start muttering. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? The carpenter’s boy? Who is he to interpret Scripture? He is no priest. He is no legal expert. He has no training. Who does he think he is?” And suddenly who he is has clouded their eyes and stopped their ears, keeping them from recognizing the Messiah standing right in front of them simply because they knew him – because of their preconceived notions and assumptions and shared history.
      • Jesus’ comparisons admittedly don’t help the situation
        • Prophet Elijah performing a miracle not in drought-ravaged Israel but in neighboring territory of Sidon (present day Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea)
        • Prophet Elisha performed miraculous healing not for any of the people of Israel but for Naaman, high-ranking official in the Syrian army – rival, foreign army
        • These two examples most certainly riled up the crowd around Jesus. Did they make his point? Surely. But maybe Jesus went a bit too far with this one because before he knew it, the crowd was not only running Jesus out of town by trying to run him right off a cliff!
      • One of the most intriguing and enigmatic verses in Scripture: But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.[10]
        • No hint as to how Jesus passed through the crowd
        • Gr. “went on his way” = word that occurs often throughout Lk whenever the gospel writer is speaking specifically of Jesus’ journey to the cross → significant because from here, Jesus travels all over the countryside teaching and preaching … but never returns to his hometown
        • So already, Jesus is making his way through one difficult situation for the sole purpose of facing the most difficult one of all – crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
  • Think about the world around us today, friends. Think about the headlines. The social media storms (because, let’s face it, there’s a new one every day). The political commentators and pundits who all seem to need to get their opinion aired no matter the cost. No matter what side of the aisle you fall on, I think we can easily agree that the tone of the nation has turned quarrelsome, belligerent, and ugly.
    • Oxford English Dictionary picks a Word of the Year every year – word that reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year” → And the word that OED chose for 2018: TOXIC. Toxic. Poisonous. Corrupting. Ruinous. Deteriorating. And friends, as much as I hate to say it … as much as we don’t want to hear it … we are part of the problem. In his hometown, Jesus spoke hard but honest words, and they tried to run him off a cliff. In this day and age, how often do we try to run people out of town, off a proverbial cliff (hopefully not a literal cliff!) simply because we don’t like what they have to say? We’ve decided what they’re saying can’t be true. Can’t be credible. Can’t be important. Just because we don’t like it.
      • Scholar: [Consider] the twenty-first century, with its endless conflicts among nations, political parties, and church factions. In such times, people are quick to demonize one another, and slow to imagine they could learn from someone from another party or faction. Yet churches could be centers of respectful conversation, wellsprings of deep dialogue that leads to discernment. We could hear the Spirit’s voice in one another’s speech and see Scripture fulfilled before us. Perhaps then we would be more able to answer our call to bring and be good news.[11] → Today we heard a tale of two crowds: one that put innate credibility in the word – believed it, revered it, and called it good; the other that cast the word in suspicion, in doubt, in fear. How will we react when it’s our turn to choose? Amen.

[1] http://ingcointernational.com/the-20-most-translated-texts-in-history/

[2] Neh 8:3 (emphasis added).

[3] Lk 4:20 (emphasis added).

[4] Lk 4:18.

[5] Ps 139:4.

[6] Ps 139:14.

[7] Neh 8:8-10.

[8] Lev 24:1-4.

[9] Lk 4:21-24, 28-30.

[10] Lk 4:30.

[11] Ruth C. Duck. “Luke 4:21-30 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 106.

Sunday’s sermon: Quenching an Unknown Thirst

water to wine

Texts used – Psalm 36:1-10; John 2:1-11

  • “Don’t talk to strangers” … “Your face is going to freeze like that” … “Money doesn’t grow on trees” … “You can’t judge a book by its cover” … “Wait an hour after eating before you swim” … “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt” … and my personal favorite, “Don’t take wooden nickels.” I mean, really … what is a wooden nickel, anyway?! *sigh* All those lovely, endearing little bits of advice we’ve gotten from parents or parental figures throughout the years. Some of them carry a grain of truth. Others … well, less so. (In all my years, I’ve never, ever met someone whose face did, in fact, “freeze that way.”)
    • One nugget that has been proven more truthful than we may have expected in recent years = old adage “Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach”[1]
      • Study done through the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management
        • 2 groups, neither of which had eaten in at least 4 hrs.
        • Groups both asked to take a survey on binder clips → told they could request as many samples of clips as they wanted
        • Before the survey, group A was given a blind taste test → fed cake before they were asked about binder clips
        • Those in group B (the hungry, non-cake group) asked for 70% more binder clips than the group who had eaten
      • Another study surveyed consumers who had just shopped at a large department store → those who were hungry spent 64% more money than those who were less hungry
      • Most interesting part of these studies = much of the shopping had nothing to do with the actual need → much of the shopping was not food shopping: finding: “Being hungry amps up your desire to acquire things” → So put more broadly, when we feel that empty feeling inside ourselves, we’re more likely to try to fill it with whatever we can – whatever’s easy, whatever’s close at hand, whatever’s convenient, whatever’s popular. But plenty of times, the things we choose actually have nothing to do with satisfying our actual bodily hunger. We try to fill it with entirely the wrong thing.
        • Even applies if we’re in a grocery store – shopping hungry rarely results in a cart full of health food, right? → Feeling that primal, elemental need deep within ourselves has a tendency to override our rational brain. The need to be filled takes over and we begin wandering from one aisle to the next, mindlessly grabbing whatever tickles our fancy and tantalizes our tastebuds until we find ourselves at home with 15 grocery bags to put away, none of which contain what we went to the store for in the first place. Right?
    • Hmmm … filling an emptiness … fulfilling a need. I wonder what our Scriptures may have to say about that this morning.
  • Let’s take a look at that strangle little story from John’s gospel first.
    • Background
      • Beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John
      • Prior to this = John the Baptist’s witness/testimony to the One coming, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus calling his disciples
      • Today’s story = 1st of seven “signs” in the gospel of John
        • “miracles” in other gospels = “signs” in John → Remember that John was written much later than the rest of the gospels – 30-40 years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke and at least 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In all that time, the early church had the opportunity to develop a good deal of theology and theological language surrounding who Jesus was, his purpose and mission as the Son of God, and how his coming related to various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures (or what we call the Old Testament). Part of that theological development included naming those miracles that Jesus performed “signs” – signs that he was, indeed the Son of God, the Messiah for whom they had waited.
          • Other signs: 3 healings, Jesus walking on water, feeding the 5000, and raising Lazarus from the dead
          • Some sources include an 8th sign – miraculous catch of fish when Jesus appears to the disciples after his death and resurrection at the end of the gospel
    • Today’s story = such an interesting gospel story for so many reasons
      • 1st: could probably be subtitled “The Miracle of the Reluctant Savior” → Jesus has to be persuaded (dare we say “goaded”?) by his mother into performing this first and crucial sign – text: When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.” Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.” His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”[2]
        • Interesting because in all the stories in all the other gospels (including all the other stories in Jn), Jesus appears to be the driver, the one calling the shots and progressing his ministry forward → But in today’s story, it’s not Jesus who initiates the ministry. Not really. It’s his mother, Mary. She was invited to this wedding, and Jesus and the disciples came along as her “plus one” (and then some!). During the celebration, she somehow found out that the wine was gone, and despite his initial protestations, she encourages Jesus to do something.
        • Also interesting because of the way Mary goes about this → She doesn’t tell Jesus what to do. She doesn’t lay out a plan. She simply says to the servants at the wedding, “Do whatever he tells you.”
          • “whatever” = not one specific word in Gr. but a combination of small words that are all sort of contingent on each other – meaning = “all the things” → So Mary is basically telling to the servants to do something, anything, everything … whatever Jesus says. And in doing this, she’s encouraging them into discipleship. It may be more of a situational discipleship than the life-devoting discipleship of those closest to Jesus. But by listening to Jesus and carrying out his instructions, the wedding servants become temporary disciples nonetheless.
      • Could also be subtitled “Miracle of Ludicrous Abundance” – text: Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did. The headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine. He didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. The headwaiter called the groom and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rater wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.”[3]
        • Need was clearly there: the wine had run out
        • After being prompted by his mother, Jesus fills that need → But he doesn’t just fill the need. If he was simply filling the need to the most basic, bare-minimum parameters, Jesus would have made the wine mediocre. Or he would have filled only one 20-30 gallon jar. Or he would have skipped the massive jars altogether and simply had the servants fill a few empty wine skins – just enough to get by. But instead, Jesus has them fill six empty jars with 20-30 gallons each and turns that water into the finest wine – even finer than what had already been served. Even before most of the guests know that the wine is out … even before most of them are aware of their need … Jesus fills that need with radical abundance.
          • Scholar: It is a miracle of abundance, of extravagance, of transformation and new possibilities. … The extravagance of Jesus’ act, the superabundance of wine, suggests the unlimited gifts that Jesus makes available. … The story invites the reader to see what the disciples see, that in the abundance and graciousness of Jesus’ gift, one catches a glimpse of the identity and character of God.[4]
          • Hansen: Glory shines when the presence of the Word turns the basic into the sublime. … That overwhelmingly generous gift, the equivalent of 605 bottles of the very best wine, is the way the Word made flesh honors human celebration itself. Because Jesus is present, God is present. Because God is present, let the good times roll.[5]
  • Identity and character of a God of radical abundance = what we see played out in OT reading this morning, too
    • 2nd half of the ps = all about the over-abundant goodness and mercy of God – text: But your loyal love, Lord, extends to the skies; your faithfulness reaches the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea. … Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the bounty of your house; you let them drink from your river of pure joy. Within you is the spring of life. In your light, we see light. Extend your faithful love to those who know you; extend your righteousness to those whose heart is right.[6] → The psalmist speaks of God’s blessing – grace, faithfulness, loyal love, light, joy. And these blessings are not in short supply. God doesn’t meter them out cautiously, stingily, making sure each person gets a miniscule apportionment and no more. No. “Your loyal love, Lord, extends to the skies; your faithfulness reaches the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea.” There is no halfway for God. There is no partial blessing. There is no holding back. God’s blessing is abundant – bigger, wider, more vast and more all-encompassing than we can even begin to imagine.
      • Reminds me of that Sunday school song: “Deep and wide / Deep and wide / There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide”[7]
      • This is the overflowing, abundant God that Jesus knew. This is the overflowing, abundant God whose love was so vast and extravagant that it could wash over everything – even the horror and pain and darkness of the cross – just to get to us. This is the overflowing, abundant God that turns water not into a bottle or two of mediocre wine but gallons upon gallons of the richest, best wine.
        • Hansen: This scene from the Word’s incarnate life reveals things about what God is like that are hard to find so clearly elsewhere. Jesus is earthy, humble, and generous. God in flesh is ready to care for others, both up close and at a distance. He gives really quirky gifts. Jesus, the incarnate Word, affirms the very human, the ordinary, and the mundane. There’s glory for you.[8]
  • So what about us?
    • 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.”
      • Often misquoted: “There is a God-shaped hole,” not vacuum
      • But there’s something more powerful, something truer about a God-shaped vacuum, isn’t there? A hole is a stagnant, lifeless thing. It doesn’t do anything. It simply exists. But a vacuum is active. It has strength. It has pull. It consumes. And there are plenty of times in our lives when we keenly feel the emptiness left behind by that vacuum, aren’t there? Times when we try to fill that void with anything and everything else: relationships, food, drink, busyness/activity, money, material items, homes, cars … the list could go on and on. But like the study that we talked about earlier – like making the mistake of going shopping on an empty stomach – all of those other things that we try to use to fill that God-shaped vacuum will not do. Only God can fill that space, that longing, that emptiness. And as we see in our Scripture readings this morning, friends, God is ready and waiting to radically and abundantly fill it, not with the things we think we want, but with the things God knows we need: grace, love, mercy, joy, and hope. “In your light, we see light. Extend your faithful love to those who know you; extend your righteousness to those whose heart is right.”[9] “He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”[10] And so do we. Alleluia, and amen.

[1] Kate Ashford. “Shopping Hungry? You’ll Spend More (Even If You’re Not Buying Food)” from Forbes online, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateashford/2015/02/25/shopping-hungry/#24befbf919dd. Posted Feb. 25, 2015, accessed Jan. 19, 2019.

[2] Jn 2:3-5.

[3] Jn 2:6-10.

[4] 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), 540.

[5] Gary Neal Hansen. “John 2:1-12 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 46, 48.

[6] Ps 36:5-6a, 7-10.

[7] “Deep and Wide” from http://childbiblesongs.com/song-11-deep-and-wide.shtml.

[8] Hansen, 48.

[9] Ps 36:9b-10.

[10] Jn 2:11b.

Sunday’s sermon: Look Around

star of bethlehem

Texts used – Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

  • Yesterday, Peter and I took our kids to the Children’s Theater up in Minneapolis. As our Christmas gift, Peter’s mom gave us tickets to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and yesterday was the big day.
    • Tickets ended up on the main floor basically in the middle – seats 14-17 in a row of nearly 50 seats
    • Most of the row was empty except the seats right next to us → family with 2 parents and 2 young boys
    • During the intermission, the family next to us got up and moved around like pretty much everyone else, and they were just starting to come back as the house lights went down for the 2nd half of the performance. So there they were, trying to get back to their seats in the awkward way that you have to walk when you’re trying to get to seats in the middle of a row … and it’s suddenly pitch black. The performance hadn’t quite resumed yet. The stage lights hadn’t come up yet. It was just plain dark – so dark I couldn’t even see Luke sitting next to me.
      • What did the mom do? Took out her phone and used the flashlight feature (that’s built into pretty much every smartphone nowadays) to easily see their way back to their seats → sat down just in time as Whos down in Whoville came out for the 2nd half of the performance
  • As they sat down, I could see on that mom’s face just how grateful she was for that little flashlight feature. And that whole experience got me thinking about just how easy it is for us to access light today, even in times and places when simply flipping on a light switch isn’t an option. We can use our phones. We can use any number of flashlights or lanterns, from little pen lights to those giant Maglights that basically double as baseball bats. Many of us even have tiny little lights that hang from our keychains. With a little bit of pressure, we get a light that’s bright enough that you don’t really want to be looking at the little diode when it lights up! In this day and age in which light is so readily available – literally at our fingertips 24/7 – I think it’s easy for us to forget just how dark the darkness can be and just how precious light truly is.
    • Today on the church calendar = Epiphany
      • Day to celebrate the coming of the magi
      • Day to celebrate the coming of the light
      • Today is the day for the Star of Bethlehem to really, truly shine. You see, even though we talk about the star throughout Advent and on Christmas Eve … it doesn’t actually appear in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s version has angels and shepherds and an inn and a manger … but no star. It’s only in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth that we find the Star of Bethlehem lending its light. – today’s text: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” … When they heard [King Herod], they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.[1] → So as we mark this day of Epiphany together – the Star of Bethlehem and the coming of the magi – we’re going to talk about how the Light can open our eyes and give us the chance to really, truly look around us.
        • Call to “look around” is one we hear directly out of our OT passage this morning – Is: Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you. Though darkness covers the earth and the gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. Lift up your eyes and look all around.[2] → It is none other than the dawning of the light that gives us the opportunity to look around, to lift up our eyes – to open them wide! – and see all that is around us. And that is indeed what we must do, friends, because God has much to show us and teach us.
  • Open our eyes to the blessings around us
    • Continuation of the Is passage: Lift up your eyes and look all around you: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips. Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide, because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you. Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.[3] → This text is full of blessings! “Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips … The sea’s abundance … the nation’s wealth … countless camels … gold and incense.” All of these are ways that we can be blessed – by the presence of others, by the provision for our needs and maybe even some of our wants, and by the presence of God in and through us.
      • Is reminds readers/hearers of those blessings in the midst of a time when blessings seemed scarce at best → context of Is = prophet during the Babylonian Exile
      • Is = providing that Light in the darkness for the people → words of hope and reassurance and blessing in a time of deep heartache and struggle and despair
        • Light of God’s love and promise opening Isaiah’s eyes so that Isaiah himself could help open the eyes of those to whom he prophesied
        • Scholar: The prophet Isaiah gives a spectacular view of untarnished hope after the dark season of Persian rule. God’s glory is revealed. God’s light bursts through and dispels the prevailing darkness. The prophet begins by telling the people to “arise” and “shine” because hope and light now radiate from God Almighty for all who wish to see.[4]
    • This time of year, starting around Thanksgiving and continuing on through the New Year, we’re often encouraged to “count our blessings” (instead of sheep, as Bing Crosby might tell us). Sometimes it can be hard to do – counting blessings – because things in our life aren’t going the way we planned.
      • Career
      • Relationships
      • Personal goals/achievements
      • But let me ask you this: How many of you watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”[5] this Christmas? How many of you watch it every Christmas? That treasured and timeless story of George Bailey and his little Savings and Loan – a man who, when he thinks he has nothing left and the world would be better off without him, is shown that the blessings in his life are rich and abundant and right before his eyes.
        • “It’s a Wonderful Life” = sort of the modern twist on Isaiah’s words for this morning
  • But there is a flip side to every coin, friends. When our eyes are opened to the incredible blessings around us – no matter what those blessings might be – our eyes are also opened to places of hurt and darkness and desperation in this world … places of great need. God’s Light shines in and on those places, too.
    • Shining of the light = call to action → Isaiah makes it clear that lifting up our eyes and looking around is a blessing. He says, “Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide.” But we also know that God does not desire our hearts to be opened wide just for our own needs and desires. It’s easy to care about and work for the things that you yourself need. It can be much more challenging to care about and work for the needs of others. And yet the passage itself begins with a call to action rooted in the presence of the light. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.” Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that, once we have been touched by the Light – once we have opened our eyes and looked around – we cannot go back to living in the dark. We cannot go back to living disconnectedly. We cannot go back to living dispassionately. We cannot go back to ways of disinterest and apathy and self-concern.
      • Scholar: “Arise! Shine!” This is not an invitation. It is a command. … Those who are privileged to stand in the light have a responsibility not just to receive the light, but also to respond to it. “Arise! Shine!” cries Isaiah. “You have the light … now show it! Get into that darkness and start shining.”[6]
    • Perfect e.g. of this in the magi visiting the Christ-child
      • Magi come to King Herod (ruler of the southern kingdom of Judea in which Bethlehem is located) because being astrologers, they have read the signs in the stars and seen the birth of the new king → unaware of just how ruthless and violent Herod could be
      • Herod confirms Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Christ child through his own chief priests and legal experts (foreshadowing side note: these are the Pharisees and Sadducees – same group of people who will try to kill Jesus when he grows up) → tries to get the magi to do his dirty work for him – text: Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”[7]
        • Herod’s true plan = kill the child whom he believes to be a threat to his power before the baby can even grow up
          • Precursor to the passage we often call “The Slaughter of the Innocents” when Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with Jesus just in time to escape Herod’s decree that all baby boys under 2 years old be killed
        • Magi follow the star and find the Christ child with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem – text: They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. They opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.[8]
        • But instead of returning to Herod as the king had requested, the magi are warned in a dream not to return. God shines the light on them to open their eyes – open their eyes to the situation in which they have found themselves, open their eyes to the true nature of King Herod and his devious request, open their eyes to the danger. And in the light of that knowledge and awareness, the magi choose to act. They choose to arise and shine – to act in good faith on the tug that God placed on their hearts. They choose to do the right thing – evading Herod’s court on their way back east and keeping their knowledge of the Christ child and his family to themselves – instead of doing the easy thing – returning to the evil king and betraying Jesus and his family, offering them up to Herod’s jealousy, wrath, and malicious intentions.
  • In this world in which light is so readily available at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget just how powerful, just how life-giving a single light can be. A light in the darkness can brighten the way. It can lift the spirit. It can encourage the heart. And that baby in that manger – that Christ-child who birth was heralded by Light itself – brings the light of God’s love and hope to our lives anew each and every day. Through the grace of God, Jesus brings that light to us, and by the good news of the gospel, we are called to take it out into a dark and weary world. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Mt 2:1-2, 9-10.

[2] Is 60:1-4a (emphasis added).

[3] Is 60:4-6.

[4] Terriel R. Byrd. “Epiphany of Jesus – Isaiah 60:1-6” from Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 51.

[5] “It’s a Wonderful Life,” released Jan. 7, 1947 by Liberty Films.

[6] Karen Pidcock-Lester. “Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60:1-6, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 198.

[7] Mt 2:7-8.

[8] Mt 2:11.

Christmas Eve sermon: Silent Night, Holy Night

silent night

Texts used – Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

  • Once upon a silent night, there was a pastor at a little white church. It was Christmas Eve. The snow fell softly and picturesquely from the sky, covering the ground, the trees, and everything for miles around in a soft, fresh blanket of white. Outside, the air was brisk and chilly. Inside, the church was just beginning to warm up for the Christmas Eve service. But there was a problem. Inside that little white church on that quiet Christmas Eve day, the organ refused to work.
    • The year: 1818
    • The church: the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria just north of Salzburg and only a few miles from the Austrian/German border
    • The pastor: Father Joseph Mohr
      • Young priest
      • Had only been at the church for about a year
      • Had a serious problem on his hands: the organ at his little country church wasn’t working (due to mice or rust, no one really knows), and there was no way it could be repaired before Christmas
      • While contemplating a particularly moving theatrical performance of the birth of Christ that he has witnessed earlier that day, Fr. Mohr decided to take a long walk that led him to the top of a hill from which he could view the whole village laid out in its silent, serene splendor. And as he gazed on that beautiful sight, Fr. Mohr remembered a poem he had written a year earlier – a poem about the night of Jesus’ birth, and the angels proclamation to the shepherds, and Jesus’ mother, Mary.[1] And in that moment, Fr. Mohr thought that his poem just might make a good carol for the Christmas Eve service.
      • Went and visited the church organist, Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a melody to go with the poem
        • Instrument: not the organ but a simple guitar
        • Made its way around Austria and Germany via a couple of well-known family singing groups at the time
        • Authorship finally attributed to Mohr/Gruber 30+ yrs. later
    • Song that those 2 men composed that night 200 yrs. ago has become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time: Silent Night
      • Translated into English 50 yrs. after it was written and brought to American by German Methodist immigrants
      • More than 200 versions of this song have been recorded
      • Translated into hundreds of languages around the world
      • Song that has crossed borders and boundaries far beyond what Fr. Mohr and Mr. Gruber probably envisioned that night
        • E.g. – sung simultaneously in French, German, and English on Christmas Eve 1914 by soldiers in the trenches during the Christmas truce → chosen because it was the only carol that all the soldiers on both sides knew
        • Song that has come to embody reverence, sacredness, and above all, peace
    • All inspired by another night, so silent and so holy …
  • “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright ‘round yon virgin mother and child! Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” → All is calm, all is bright as Emmanuel, God-With-Us comes to this earth. All is calm, all is bright as the Almighty Creator of All That Is, Was, and Will Be breaks into human existence in a whole new way – a way that’s not powerful or commanding but vulnerable and unassuming: the Divine Extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, the Sacred Uncommon in the most common of places.
    • Bethlehem was not a town of power or prestige
      • Small village situated far from the seat of power
      • “Nothing special,” as we would probably call it today
      • And yet into that “nothing special” came the One Who Would Change Everything: Jesus Christ, the Savior, the Lord God Almighty in human flesh.
    • Text: Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expected a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[2] → Once upon a silent night, a man and a woman were seeking whatever shelter they could find. They had traveled long. They had traveled hard. They had finally reached their destination, and they were exhausted. But the city was too full – it was overcrowded, and there were no places for them to find even a moment alone, a moment of privacy, a moment of respite. They knocked on every door and inquired at every inn. Finally, the last innkeeper took pity on them and gave them space in the stable with the animals. And there – there in that place that was simple and humble and unassuming … there among the animals and the hay … there in a time that no one expected and a place that no one knew – there, God came to earth.
  • “Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sign; glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia: Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!” → Another silent night that started out so simple and ended up so holy. The shepherds were just doing what they did every other day of the year. Surely nothing seemed out-of-the-ordinary on the hillside that night as they hunkered down in the grass to catch some rest while their sheep grazed around them. Maybe they talked and laughed. Maybe they built a fire and shared a meal together. Maybe their heavy eyelids had just closed in exhaustion and comfort. I suppose they could have expected interruptions – bandits and thieves, predators, maybe a lost sheep or two. But I think it’s safe to guess that declarative angels and a multitude of the heavenly host weren’t on their list of potential nocturnal interruptions.
    • Silent night that quickly became not-so-silent – full of light and angels and voices proclaiming good news from every angle
    • Mundane night that quickly became oh-so-holy – full of promise and hope and salvation … full of Messiah
    • Most powerful part: God broke into their everyday lives!! – text: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.[3] → God came into the ordinary and made it extraordinary. God came into the familiar and made it ineffable. God came into the settled and made it sacred.
      • Yes, that night started off silent BUT …
      • God made that night holy
  • “Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” → That night may have started out silent, but it didn’t stay that way for long – not for the angels, not for the shepherds, and not for Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph suddenly had a newborn on their hands. The angels had news to deliver. The shepherds had a Savior to witness. And they all had a God to praise.
    • Text: So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about the child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.[4]
      • Praise for love that surely radiated from that tiny face
      • Praise for long-awaited redemption now at hand
      • Praise for hope that radiated from presence of God among them
      • The people had waited long – oh, so long! – for the coming of this Savior. – OT text from Is mentioned “the people who walked in darkness” and described a bit of that darkness – text: For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.[5] → The history through with Mary’s people, Joseph’s people, the shepherd’s people had waited was long and hard, painful and bloody, full of oppression and distress.
    • And yet in the midst of that darkness, on that dark and silent night, came God’s light – text: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. … 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.[6] → In the midst of the darkness, on that dark and silent night, came God’s light, pure and bright, radiant and bold, full of love and hope and the promise of a long-awaited redemption. A redemption that rings out true and holy even on another silent night …
  • Once upon a silent night, there was a pastor at a little white church. It was Christmas Eve. The snow covered the ground, the trees, and everything for miles around in a blanket of white. Outside, the air was brisk and chilly. Inside, the church was just beginning to warm up for the Christmas Eve service. Inside were friends and family – those who had known each other their whole lives, those who had just met each other 5 minutes ago, and everything in between. Inside were people who came together to worship and pray, to sing and to praise, to remind each other of the sacredness of that night so long ago and to make this night sacred for each other. After all, isn’t that why we’re here?
    • Bring a moment of holiness and peace into our holiday celebrations
    • Remind ourselves and each other that there’s more to this season that all the busyness → I think that too often, we get wrapped up in the busyness of this season – in the pressure and the push to buy more, host more, decorate more, bake more, try more, do more, be more. We love the festiveness of the holiday season … and yet we are also exhausted by it.
      • Contemporary Christmas song by Amy Grant – “I Need a Silent Night”[7]

  • So on this night – this night 200 years after the birth of a treasured song and more than 2000 years after the birth of a treasured Savior – let us remind each other of the importance of silence and sacredness, holiness and hope. Let us witness again the power and majesty of angels bringing good news. Let us fall on our knees in awe together at the sight of salvation and peace wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. For a child has indeed been born for us, a son given to us. – “Silent night, holy night! Wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing Alleluia to our King: Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!” Amen.

[1] https://www.commdiginews.com/travel/the-story-of-silent-night-32080/.

[2] Lk 2:4-7 (NRSV).

[3] Lk 2:8-11 (NRSV).

[4] Lk 2:16-20 (NRSV).

[5] Is 9:4-5 (NRSV).

[6] Is 9:1, 6 (NRSV, emphasis added).

[7] Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. “I Need a Silent Night” from The Christmas Collection, © BMG Rights Management, 2008.