A Christmas sermon based on on Luke 2:8-20.
God offers to ornery and ordinary humanity the gift of grace, undeserved. The gift of love, unqualified. The gift of forgiveness, unearned. The gift of affirmation that, though we’ve spent centuries pondering (and theologians have spilled rivers of ink theorizing) something we call “original sin,” we are slow to apprehend God’s original blessing—that we are created in love, unique, amazing, in God’s very image and likeness.
By any reasonable assessment of the situation, Mary becoming pregnant by anyone except Joseph is a pretty big problem for her. In fact, the law says that she should be stoned, she and the father, for this violation of the contract between her and Joseph. Let’s assume Mary believes the angel’s words. Let’s assume that she believes she can convince Joseph of what the angel revealed to her. These things still don’t entirely account for the words in this song. Words of victory over an enemy. Words that describe a world that is about to turn, with the powerful crashing down, and the powerless being raised up. What is she talking about?
These are rough and tumble days we live in. It is the era of the viral, stinging tweet, the verbal or virtual stand-off, nastiness drawn like the guns at the OK Corral. In such times, it’s gentleness that comes as a shock. We are expecting a cutting rebuke, and instead, we receive kindness, and grace. Paul connects gentleness with the nearness of the Lord… Maybe that’s something like, how do you want Jesus to find you, when he returns? On the other hand, maybe it’s a reminder that everyone… even the one we don’t particularly like, or agree with… is made in the image and likeness of God. Gentleness, like joy, is a choice we can make. Let your gentleness be known to everyone… the Lord is near.
Then, Zechariah sings directly to his son:
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
to give God’s people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ~Luke 1:76-79
Jesus’ words are not all dire warning. In fact, “warning” can be a gift that opens in us the space for change and the room for a new view. “When you see these things taking place,” Jesus says, “you know that the kingdom of God is near.” And this is the reminder we need us that the kingdom of God is as near as our next breath. Christ comes—in history, yes, and in the future, we pray, but also, and most urgently, today. In that second coming, Christ comes daily, into our hearts, and that means, this very minute. Now.
The kings and queens whose stories flickered across my computer screen surely played according to type as outlined by God, even those of relatively good character. Here’s the problem: the kind of power traditionally given to royalty could corrode the morals of even those who started out promisingly. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Image: Jesus of the People copyright 1999 Janet McKenzie www.janetmckenzie.com
God is seeking to bring something marvelous to birth in us… something more splendid than a thousand Cinderella castles, or Javitz Centers, or cathedrals. God is seeking to bring something lasting to birth in us… something that will outlast the greatest stones of the greatest temples. In fact, God is seeking to bring to birth in everyone, everywhere, in every time and place, the only thing that will last, and the only thing that is more powerful than the fear that is beginning to creep into Jesus’ inner circle, causing the disciples’ knees to go weak and their hearts to pound. The only thing that matters…
Image: Stained Glass Window, Copyright Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY. All rights reserved.
It is a beautiful thing to see that this woman has done this. It is a deeply inspiring thing to see that, even in her position of loss, and grief, and depleted resources, she somehow finds in her the gratitude for blessings she has known. She finds a way to continue to trust in God. She finds hope for a better future, and in that hope, she gives all she has for the building up of God’s house. In her selfless act, there is a kind of power, a strength of character that is truly inspiring.
But Jesus also gives us a warning about this beautiful act: She shouldn’t have to do it.
How many of you remember “Jill and Kevin’s Big Day”? This was the name of a video that appeared on Youtube in the summer of 2009, and quickly went viral. It depicted a large wedding party dancing down the aisle of a church to provide an incredibly festive opening to Jill and Kevin’s marriage ceremony. There is something so joyous about it, something, even though it’s choreographed, so spontaneous and beautiful. And since then there have been countless other videos that have appeared—a dance at the reception by the bride and groom, or by the bride and her dad, or by the two grooms, or the two brides; another dance number that takes place trailing behind an open hatchback, as a prelude to a big, public proposal of marriage.
We dance when we’re happy. We dance when we’re celebrating. We dance when we want to be reminded that we are alive. Dancing is a celebration of life. For everything there is a season, and that includes a time to dance.
Image: The Dancing Saints, by Mark Dukes, @2009 St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. Used with permission.
Truth is at the heart of the Reformation. As we can tell from the context of Jesus’ statement, truth isn’t always easy. Sometimes telling the truth leads to the cross, an outcome Jesus was willing to accept. But strangely, crazily, that truth was still the source of freedom for Jesus, and it is a source of freedom for us.
When we know the truth, or even, when we are willing to entertain the truth, we are able to step out of a kind of prison we may not have even known we were in. This prison isn’t the kind with steel bars and strict visiting hours. It is one of ongoing separation: the separation we humans feel from one another, and the separation we feel between ourselves and God….
Image: Stained Glass Windows, copyright Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY.
Imagine the worst possible thing happening to you. I know that for some of us, we may be pretty sure that thing has already happened. And it is the most normal, the most natural thing in the world to ask why. Why me? Why now? Is there something I did wrong? Is there something I should have done, that I didn’t do? It is a very human thing to do, to search our souls for our own guilt, when something terrible happens.
Rev. Lisa Heckman
Interim Pastor, First Presbyterian Union Church, Owego, NY
It all began because my little Micah began to fuss. But, in all fairness, it had been a long day.
It had begun when my friend Chana hurried up to the well. It was early, even for fetching water, but she and I have found that this is the best time to meet. Each morning we begin our day, at home with our prayers to Ha Shem, and then at the well, the gathering place of our community, with words of friendship. In this way, we begin our days with strength.
“Today!” She said, without even bothering to say “Shalom.” “Today is the day! He is coming, the rabbi.”
Image: “Suffer the Little Children…” Lucas Cranach the Younger (1538), public domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
We need to sincerely try to understand this phenomenon without waving it away as something merely superstitious or from a more primitive era: In the gospels, demons pose a real threat to people’s health and well-being. Whatever modern science has suggested to us as possible explanations for what the bible calls “possession,” certain behaviors and symptoms people displayed in this place, and at this time, became associated with the presence of evil. That community felt completely helpless against this evil until Jesus came along, and started, in his own way, to root it out. The way of Jesus, the way of God, is healing, and wholeness.
Image: A medieval illustration of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I tried to ponder this week exactly what my earliest ideas about wisdom were. I think I always connected wisdom with quiet, with contemplation. I also connected it with certain spaces—a church, certainly, but also, nature. The depths of the ocean reminded me of wisdom, but also the deep umbrella that is the space under a weeping willow. Also, the summit of a mountain—a place that gives you a broad vista, or, as Anne with an E might say, scope for the imagination.
Woman Wisdom doesn’t seem to share any of these notions. She comes charging at us on a city street… think East Main Street at about 5 in the afternoon, everyone rushing somewhere. She uses her voice to take charge at the gates of the city.
Wisdom, apparently, isn’t something only for quiet and reflective times.
Image: “Queen” by Binghamton, NY artist Eve Gray. Used with permission.
Our reasons for being here on a Sunday morning are as varied as we are. I’m sure we all have different combinations of motivations bringing us in these doors. But one reason we’ve all heard, and one we’ve probably all embraced at different moments in our lives is: It’s all about Jesus. We come to learn about Jesus, and we come to learn from Jesus. Jesus is our first and most important teacher when it comes to learning about God, and church would seem to be the right place for us to do that learning, either as Christians or as people who are interested in what Jesus has to say.
In the name of honesty: If we hope to learn from Jesus, the passage I’ve just finished reading, presents us with some challenges. We’ve just read a story about Jesus in which, first, he’s trying to get away from people, and second, in which he pretty rudely rebuffs a mom who’s come to him for help for her daughter…
This is an urgent letter. James knows that Jesus’ followers are struggling. They are haunted by memories of trauma and loss. They are experiencing the hardships of separation and temptation. How to even begin to offer help, through this slow means of communication? How to encourage them?
James begins by trying to help them find their way back, to re-orient them, to remind them who they are. It’s the spiritual equivalent of asking them to stop, and take a deep breath. He starts with gratitude…
Guest pastor: Rev. Michelle Wahila
Please read Ephesians 3:1-21
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
I love Christmas: the whole season. I love the music, the baking and even Piccolo, our elf on the shelf. I love walking down the Champs Élysées Christmas market, sipping spiced wine and watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, and Home Alone. What I love most of all is the anticipation of the season. I love preparing for Christmas.
I especially enjoy gift wrapping. I love selecting the perfect gift for someone, and then wrapping it with care. I like to pick the perfect wrapping paper – maybe it’s Star Wars paper for my son (or husband), or maybe it’s shiny paper with glitter snowflakes, but whatever it is, it has to fit the person. After selecting the paper, I like to pick the perfect bow. I like to painstakingly tie it, while humming the tune of “simple gifts.” So whether it’s a brown paper package tied up with string, or a Star Wars package with a silver galactic light bow, I love preparing gifts for the people I love.
In the same way, if I spotted a leopard print package with a pink bow under our Christmas tree, I might think it was for me. And I would imagine that whatever is inside a perfectly wrapped leopard print box with a pink bow, would be the perfect gift for me…
I imagine that this perfect gift would be something I would use all year long. We’ve all had the “other” kind of gifts… the shelf gifts, the white elephants, the perfect “re-gift” gifts… But someone who knows me well enough to wrap my gift in a leopard print box with a pink bow… That’s not going to be a re-gift! That’s going to be the all-year-long gift.
So here we are in August, thinking about Christmas gifts! But I am not prematurely thinking forward to the coming Christmas. I actually want you to think back. I wonder if you have used the gift of Christmas well this year? Have you used the gift of Christmas since the 25th?
After all, Jesus was not really born on December 25 anyways. No one set up a decorated tree next to the manger in Bethlehem. We don’t have any record of the holy family celebrating the impending birth of the Christ child through a series of company parties and familial gatherings. They didn’t send out cards. The magi didn’t come bearing cookies and fruit cakes.
Today we associate a lot with Christmas that was not present at the first Christmas. These new associations often become distractions from the intent of Christmas. But they can also be wonderful reminders of what is at the heart of Christmas.
The first chapter of the book of John provides a great representation of what happened at the first Christmas: a gift came into the world, a wonderful gift of light. The light was love—a love that dispels darkness, coldness and fear. The light was present in Jesus. Jesus was given that the world may see a witness to light, love and life.
Light. Love. And life.
Those are the gifts of Christmas. Our strange traditions are meant to call our attention back to those words and ideas. We celebrate Christmas to once again be inspired by light, love and life. Trees remind us of life, even the midst of the longest, coldest nights. The lights remind us of the One Light that dispels darkness. The gifts invite us to share and experience love. But the traditions aren’t the point. The season isn’t even the point. Light, love and life are the point.
There are many who shirk anything having to do with Christmas because our celebrations seem hollow. We’re not supposed to act with grace and peace during one season a year. We’re supposed to be people of light, love and life ALL THE TIME.
So how can we be a people who use the gifts of Christmas all year long?
1. Open it! Open the Gift. Open His story that it would become yours.
Every time we open the Word, we spend time quiet time with God, or we practice prayer, we are given the opportunity to put the things of God’s heart into ours. As God’s child, God takes what is on your heart and combines it with your unique story to drive forward the Kingdom agenda.
Paul the disciple to the Gentiles was the persecutor of the church who became a preacher of the Good News. God took all of his story – his religious background and knowledge of the law and stirred in his heart something new.
When Paul encountered Jesus it was as if his true self and purpose was awakened. Paul didn’t take that gift of grace, look at it, say “thanks,” and then leave it unopened. Paul also didn’t simply pray for the church, he changed it.
Like Paul we are planted in a particular place and time with a particular holy purpose. Don’t be afraid to claim your story and who you are. You can say, “this is me: brave, bruised, but who I am meant to be.”
Paul’s testimony was that “God’s grace was sufficient.” Our God is the God who answers our failings with affirmations. Jesus whispers to you: I know your imperfections. I know you who are, but do you know who I am?
On your very worst day, when you think your story is finished, Jesus calls you beloved. If you aren’t hearing this, you aren't hearing Jesus. He chose you before creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he claims you.
This grace is God’s gift to you, on Christmas, and every day. Every day we wake up, we receive this gift again, we can with confidence say, “I belong here.” Our story is His, and it isn’t finished. All of our passion and potential is wrapped up in God’s love for us. Open it up!
2. Don’t put it on a shelf after Christmas!
You don’t want to take a fabulous gift and just put it on the shelf and not use it the rest of the year. So why we would set aside the gift of Christmas and not use it after January?
We certainly need the courage to use the gift of Christmas. I think of the bleeding woman, who had the courage to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. She was unclean and unwelcome, but she had the courage to push through the crowd to touch Jesus – to claim her gift, and to be healed, and whole.
When we we claim Christ and all his abundance toward us, we become an instrument of God’s grace. We push forward, and help to create a narrative that reflects all of His gifts and goodness. Faith is not just words on a page or in a Christmas Carol, faith is becoming God’s light and God’s love in this world. Like the Spirit moving over the waters, we participate in the story to create something new.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians that he became a servant of the Gospel by the gift of God’s grace. He said that he was “least of all of the Lord’s people,” but we don’t think of him like that. What if he had left God’s gift to him on the shelf? What if he met Jesus on the road to Emmaus and he left exactly the same?
Paul was a persecutor of the church, called to preach God’s boundless love to the Gentiles. So every time you think you can’t do it, you aren’t enough, or you don’t have enough, remember that like Paul, you are a part God’s story.
There is nothing worse than ignoring your passion and potential! Don’t put your gifts and talents on a shelf because you aren’t here just for you. You are living not just for yourself but for future generations. Your problems are not an excuse, but your platform for changing the world. Your story is your legacy.
We may not be in prison for the Gospel like Paul was, but we are captive to our purpose in Christ. We are called to reflect God’s light and should be captivated by the task. Wherever we are and in whatever we are facing, we can be a reflection of Christ. When people meet you they should meet Jesus. So don’t put Jesus on a shelf on December 26th.
3. Re-gift it.
Unlike most “re-gifts,” that you probably don’t want… The gift of Jesus is a gift that you want to receive and to give. This is the perfect re-gift because it was meant to be given. The God who was willing to come down and see about you, wants you to see about others.
On Christmas we celebrate Emmanuel – “God with us.” This is the God who infiltrates the nitty-gritty of our lives. The humble baby born in manager brought light into the darkness. He came to reach the unreachable and to find the lost.
The manger at Christmas means that, if you live like Jesus, there won’t be room for you in a lot of inns. The gift of Jesus is one that pushes us beyond what is comfortable. It’s a Christmas table that includes the estranged relative, and the stranger.
But it also comes with the affirmation that when you don’t know what to do, or how to help, or what to give, God does. After Paul tells his story, and reflects on his purpose he gives a blessing. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!
Paul’s blessing to the Ephesians is God’s promise to us. God’s power is at work in us. There may not be an angel speaking to you, no scroll coming down from heaven to tell you your Kingdom purpose, but God can do more with you than you could ever imagine.
Christmas draws us back to this. It is a compass reorienting us to what God is doing in the world: bringing more light, life and love. It can be a time to set habits that move us closer to being people who share light, life, and love all the time.
When we open the gifts of Christmas and chose to creatively be a part of God’s plan, re-gifting becomes pretty simple: Love everybody anyways. Inevitably, this will draw us back to the people we want to love the least, but they are probably the ones who need us to love them the most.
Love everybody anyways. Simple, but not easy. I don’t know what this looks like for you – but I am quite certain you have one or two Ebenezer Scrooges in your life. We all do. Deep down we want the Hallmark version of Christmas, but that’s hardly the way the gift of Jesus goes.
Maybe it’s simply important to remember that the first Christmas didn’t take place in a church, but outside in the cold and dark of night, given to those who didn’t belong. I’m not sure how this community of faith will choose to translate that – politically, economically, or practically, but I do know that it will draw you back to hard questions and grey spaces, all year long.
The Gospel message is taking the people you are avoiding and giving them your very best. The only thing this re-gift requires is your faith, expressed in love. Faith expressed in love is made up of everyday actions and the everyday choice to love. Through you, through your story, and by your hands the gift of Christmas is given, reflecting Jesus into the world. Be a people of light, life, and love every day. Merry Christmas!
 From the Rethink Church Blog. Dunn, Ryan. “Rethinking Christmas Tradition.”
 See 2 Corinthians 12:9
 See Ephesians 1:3-6
 Keller, Timothy. “Hidden Christmas.” 119.
I don’t know where this story originated. I don't know whether it was something captured in a video, or originally part of an article, or a post on social media such. All I know is, once I heard it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
You may have seen it, or heard it. It is a story about a couple, and they are fighting—they are angry, they are yelling. And, in the same room with them, there is a small child, a toddler. And, at some point, the toddler picks up the TV remote, and aims it at their parents, and tries to turn it off.