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.