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And When You Pray: Hallowed!

(a sermon for June 25, 2017, the Third Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on  Luke 11:1-4 and Ezekiel 36:22-28)

In a quote that I must say resonates with me on this particular day, the Baptist preacher and author John Piper writes simply and beautifully that life is “a combination of spectacular things and simple things.  In almost everyone’s life,” he says, “there are breathtaking things and boring things.  Fantastic things and familiar things.  Extraordinary things and ordinary things.  Awesome things and average things.  Exotic things and everyday things.  That’s the way life is.”

In other words, for every day that we are celebrating glorious and life-changing events (!) there are just as many that we are pretty much sitting back and watching the world go by.  I was reflecting on this truth just recently on one of these very hot summery days we’ve had as of late, as Lisa, Sarah and I were all three sitting out in the backyard; lawn chairs surrounding and feet dangling in this little plastic wading pool our adult daughter keeps for just such afternoons.  And though it was hot, and as we like to say in Maine, “the air was thick with hum’dity,” it was… wonderful: soaking in the sun, feeling that warm summer breeze blowing through, and watching as that same wind wound through the trees and curled the leaves and branches above us; hey, we even got to watch our dog Ollie walking in circles around the wading pool for literally a solid hour, all the while diving for little bits of leaf and tree bud that had blown into the water!

Nothing special; just another summer Sunday afternoon in New Hampshire, but a good one, and a true blessing.  And, might I add, something very, very close to prayerful.  That’s something else that John Piper writes; he says that there is “a correspondence” between the content of prayer, in particular the content of the Lord’s Prayer, and “the content of our lives,” whether that involves the big or the little, the glorious or the common, the majestic or the mundane.  For you see, just as God is present to us in all of the wonders, both small and large, of our lives, in the act of prayer you and I are caught up in the great and glorious ways that God moves in and through it all!  As Piper puts it, prayer is “iridescent with eternity and woven into ordinary life” so that in each and every one of our days we might truly walk in tandem with the Almighty; perchance to be enriched, ennobled and empowered along every step of the journey.

At its heart, you see, this is what prayer is about: affirmation, adoration, dedication… and ultimately, a promise; and as Jesus would teach his disciples, and us, it all begins with these words: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

And that’s where we begin as well.  It’s worth noting, I think, as now we get into the parsing of all the particular verses of the Lord’s Prayer in this sermon series, that this is a prayer that can basically be divided into two parts: the first speaking of God’s presence and purpose in the world (in other words, we are praying about God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will), and the second, centering on our lives and living in relationship to God (our daily bread, our forgiveness and our lives steeped in holiness).  Two very distinct perspectives; but taken as a whole, a prayer in which we have this wonderful and transcendent intermingling of the divine presence and the human experience.  And it all starts with an amazing affirmation from which everything else proceeds: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

What’s interesting, you know, is that scripture doesn’t spend much, if any, time debating the existence of God or answering the question of who is God; throughout the Bible there is simply the assumption that God is!  Right from the very first verse of Genesis, we are told, “In the beginning, God…;” and later on, when Moses asks about the divine identity to the burning bush, God’s answer is “I AM WHO I AM!” (Exodus 3:14) the word in the ancient Hebrew language that we know as Yahweh.  This is, in fact, the most fundamental truth in the universe, that God who God is, and far beyond our ability to wholly define, identify or hone in any way, shape or form; all of which makes it all the more significant that when Jesus bids us to come to this infinite, unidentifiable God with our prayer, he instructs us to call him “our Father!”

Think with me for a moment about the awesome wonder of this: here’s the Lord of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth, the God of all time and no time and we get to call him… Father!  Now, I hope we all understand that this is no mere patriarchal construct because the God who is the great “I AM” certainly exists beyond our human concepts of gender; moreover, the God of the Bible includes not only male images of the divine, but also a great many female characterizations as well. Moreover, we have to be careful not to equate this to the difficult and sometimes even destructive human relationships that all too often exist between a father and a child.  No, the relationship that’s being set forth here is that of an infinitely loving parent unto a much cherished child; a caring, loving and deeply intimate relationship that seeks for the best for that child, providing for that child in and all circumstances.

Our model for this is Jesus himself, whose very life was one of intimacy with his Father and is reflected throughout the gospel story, from the time he was this precocious 12-year old in temple who knew he “must be in [his] Father’s house” (Luke 2:49) to those harrowing hours on the cross when he prayed on behalf of those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34) It’s particularly telling that so often in the gospels, when Jesus addresses God, he uses the word “Abba,” which in our usage is best translated as “Daddy.”  Think of it; in the words of Victor Pentz, “God is all powerful.  God is infinitely loving.  Jesus says, ‘Call God Daddy.’”

So right away in our praying this prayer, we establish this heretofore unimaginable relationship with the divine; when we pray, “Our Father,” we are affirming that God is right here, right now and for you and me ever and always!  However, that said, we also have to know that this relationship does not come at the expense of God’s authority or power: to pray to “our father” is not to diminish God in any way; and we know this because we also pray to “our Father [who is] in heaven.”

I’ve actually heard it said that this is the part of the Lord’s Prayer that gets glossed over the most often; as though it’s just some kind of throwaway line that expresses where it is that God dwells and by extension where we are as well; you know, the idea that God’s “up there” (as in, “the man upstairs”) and we’re “down here.”  But in fact, it’s much more than that; it actually establishes the full impact of what it means that we call God “Father.”  Actually, this is an affirmation that is not as much spatial as it is spiritual.   What we’re saying is that God, our Father, is in heaven, which is the seat of all authority and power and dominion and greatness; and so what we have is this infinite and majestic God who has the authority and the power to hear us and to come to us when we pray!

What this all means, friends, is that we are meant to be secure in the Father’s love!  We are always blessed to know that despite the vast, unbridgeable gulf that exists between a holy God and a sinful humanity we are nonetheless brought into a relationship with God that is as expansive as the cosmos and yet as close as our very breathing.  You and I are the recipients a loving embrace that stretches into eternity and that not even death can destroy; and it comes to us by the grace of “our Father, who art in heaven.”

But the question is…what do we do with that?  How are we to respond to that all-encompassing kind of presence?  What are we to pray that even begins to approach a fitting level of gratitude for what we are given in the kind of relationship that God extends to us?  It turns out that this is what the first “petition” of this prayer that Jesus teaches us is all about; as recorded in Luke’s version of the prayer: “Father, hallowed be your name.”

Of course, the word hallowed is not one that we use all that often in today’s language; in fact, I suspect that for most of us, this part of the prayer amounts to another word of praise to God, albeit written in the language of King James English!  But in fact, it represents much more than this; to hallow, you see, means to sanctify, or to make or treat something as holy; so when we speak of the name of God being hallowed or sanctified, what we are saying is that is that we wish to treat God as being wholly holy (!) in our lives and for our world.  It means that we believe God is our Father in heaven, that this understanding has consequences for everything else we know to be true, that every direction of our lives will shift simply by virtue of this understanding, and that as a result we will honor God in the very ways that we live and move and have our being.  To quote John Piper one more time, “[We] hallow the name of God when [we] trust him, revere him, obey him, and glorify him.”

Isn’t it interesting, beloved, that in affirming the name of God, who is our heavenly Father, we also make a promise to live unto the truth of that name?  And isn’t it even more interesting that it’s only a very small step between letting God’s name be hallowed in our lives and to letting God’s kingdom come forth in the here and now, and to let God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” (but I get ahead of myself… that’s for next week!).

For now, let us rejoice in what we’ve been given.  Life is indeed a combination of the spectacular and the routine, the easy-going as well as the nitty-gritty, the utterly earth-bound and the gloriously heaven sent; all of it imbued with the presence and power of God. But in this daily mingling of the Eternal and the Everyday, and as we pray, we discover that in all things we are the people of a God who loves us beyond measure; who, in the words of our Old Testament text for this morning from Ezekiel, gives us “a new heart… and a new Spirit” within us, so that we always know that we are his people and that he shall always be our God.

He is our Father, and may we seek today and always to hallow his Holy name with lives of adoration and faithful service.

And in all that we say and most importantly, in all that we do…

… may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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And When You Pray: The Trouble with Prayer

(a sermon for June 18, 2017, the Second Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 6:5-15)

The Lord’s Prayer – or, as it’s named in our Sunday bulletin, the Prayer of Our Savior – it’s almost certainly the most well-known prayer found in scripture; it’s at least arguably the prayer that we as Christians pray the most often; and for a whole lot of us, it might well be one of the first prayers we ever learned, or at least that we learned in church or at Sunday School.  In fact, over the years as a pastor, I’ve discovered that whether we make an effort to do so or not, our children tend to learn the Lord’s Prayer simply by virtue of their being present in worship and hearing that prayer spoken week after week by all the adults around them!

The only trouble with this, however, is that as kids are wont to do, they sometimes get the words a bit mangled: for instance, the little girl who began her prayer like this:  “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hello!  What be thy name?”  Or, as if to answer that question, the boy who prayed: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name!”  Or how about the child who asked God to “give us this day our jelly bread,” which stands in stark contrast to the kid who prayed that God should “give us this day our daily double” (which I’m not sure means that someone in the family was going to the race track, or was watching Jeopardy!). And, of course, there was the child who prayed, “Deliver us from weevils,” which is a misinterpretation I can get behind (!); and my absolute favorite (though it is a little dated… but then again, so am I!), “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen… and F.M.!”

Eventually, however, we all learn those all-important words, don’t we?  I mean, as I said before, as Christians this is the prayer we pray at just about every gathering we have for worship.  It is a central facet of our church liturgy; it is an essential piece of our celebration of the sacraments, in particular the Lord’s Supper; and I can tell you from experience that it has served as a powerful word of comfort and assurance during countless graveside services that I’ve been a part of over the years.  And yet, I can also attest to the fact that its power exists not merely to regular church goers and devout believers; I could tell you about a great many bedside vigils spent with people who are sick or dying, and who have had little understanding of God and faith, and at best a nodding relationship with the church, and yet the one prayer they always seem to know, the one prayer that inevitably will give them a sense of calm and peace in the midst of impossible situations is… the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” as they’ll sometimes refer to it. Indeed, I’ve found in so many situations that this prayer has had the power to bring forth reverence where there was little or none before!

And so for these reasons and so many others I could name it’s important and essential that we know and that we pray our Lord’s Prayer, and do so often.  All this said, however, there is a risk – a trouble with prayer, if you will – that comes in our praying this prayer so often that it either, on the one hand, becomes so familiar to our ears and our lips that it becomes rote and little more than an inspirational recitation, without anything at all that would render it vital or compelling to our lives and our faith; or else, on the other hand,  ends up being spoken in such a way that is, well… arrogant, as though this prayer were merely some incantation of self-proclamation; the kind of exercise preferred by “the hypocrites,” (or, as the New Testament Greek can also be translated, “the actors”) “[who] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

Friends, I’m here to tell you this morning that it happens, and more often than we might realize!  But understand that neither of these scenarios – the ritualistic empty repetition of phrases, nor the blatant use of religion as self-aggrandizement – represents the purpose or the proper practice of prayer; and that is what lay at the heart of both our text for this morning, and quite honestly, the impetus for this particular sermon series.  For the thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is the prayer of our Savior; it is, as I so often say here in our worship, the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples, and us, to pray!  And as such, Jesus gave these words not so that they could be used merely as another “official” prayer of the faith, and certainly not as a means of proclaiming to the world just how faithful we are!  Just the opposite; this prayer that Jesus provides us is meant to to be the model on which our every other prayer – in fact, I dare say every expression of our faith as well – is built.  In other words, to quote Philip McLarty here, “Put the elements of the Lord’s Prayer together in your own words and your prayers are sure to be complete.”

Of course, it’s important to note that as Matthew’s gospel tells the story Jesus offers up this prayer in the context of some thinly veiled contempt for the scribes and Pharisees, the “mainstream” religious establishment of his time; they were indeed those to whom Jesus was referring when he spoke of the “hypocrites,” the religious actors who loved to be seen and heard and thus “have already received their reward.”  Likewise, Jesus had little patience for those who “heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for,” Jesus says, “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

I’ll be honest; whenever I read this passage, I’m reminded of a very fundamentalist pastor I knew in my younger days as a pastor who was notorious for loud, spontaneous and very emotional prayers in the most interesting (and often inappropriate!) places:  like at the supermarket, or in the middle of a busy hospital aisle, or at somebody else’s church!   Now, I’ll give the man his due: he was truly a man of faith who for many years an effective pastor to his own congregation; but for some reason, there were times he was compelled to drop to his knees, start waving his hands and begin to pray in a very loud voice, literally weeping and wailing every word so that we all stop what we were doing and pay attention!  Who knows why exactly he would do this, but it used to happen a whole lot; and unfortunately, rather than bringing all those within the sound of his voice into the circle of love and salvation, his style of prayer did little more than drive people away (in fact, no joke; the hospital was so upset by this that our entire ministerium in that town was nearly banned from making unsupervised pastoral visits!).

Not to make any unfair comparisons here (!) but quite frankly, this was the kind of behavior that Jesus had witnessed in the scribes, the Pharisees and others of his time as well: prayer filled with “vain repetitions” and “showy” presentations all for the sake of drawing attention to oneself.  This was not the kind of prayer that Jesus had in mind; no, says Jesus, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Likewise, don’t pile on the words, for ultimately “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Do you see the connective tissue here?  Prayer, you see, is first and foremost to be about God, not about us.  In the words of 19th century Methodist pastor and writer E.M. Bounds, “Prayer puts God in the matter with commanding force… prayer honors God; it dishonors self.  It is [our] plea of weakness, ignorance, want; a plea which heaven cannot disregard.  God delights to have us pray.”  Or, to quote Phillips Brooks, “the purpose of prayer is not to get [our] will  done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth.”

Simply put, prayer is meant to be relational; since the very essence of prayer is speaking with God, then it is indicative of the depth of our relationship with God!  And that’s what is wonderful and so very powerful about the Lord’s Prayer, because every phrase that Jesus has given us to prayer – from “Our Father, who art in heaven,” to “deliver us from evil” and beyond – represents the many parts of a rich and deep relationship with God.  It’s all there:  adoration, confession, petition, the willingness to let submit to God’s will and purpose for our lives; and throughout there’s this spirit of thanksgiving and praise and perhaps above all, hopefulness born of the sure and certain promises that God has given and is personified in Jesus himself. Beloved, nothing stands more squarely at the heart of faith than prayer, for prayer is born of a close, personal relationship with the Almighty God; and nowhere is this illustrated any more fully than in the Lord’s Prayer.  And so that’s why over the next few weeks this summer, we’re going to take the time to “unpack,” verse by verse, phrase by phrase all the many and varied blessings that are found in these words of Jesus; so that “when we pray,” we might be wholly and fully inspired to understand and embrace what our doing so offers.

Some years ago, I was asked to offer a prayer – a table grace this time – at a Women’s Fellowship banquet being held at a local restaurant.  We actually had a sizeable group that night, and so had been gathered in a room off the main dining area; but the place was still very busy, and as I stood up to pray, it happened that there was still music wafting through the room from the speakers above me.  And as I began to give the Lord thanks for our food and the fellowship in which it was being shared, I could not help but notice that what was playing above me was Frank Sinatra singing, “I’ve got youuuuu under my skinnnnn, I’ve got youuuuu deep in the heart of me; so deep in the heart that you’re really a part of me; I’ve got youuuu under my skin!” (Hey, at least it wasn’t “I get no kick from champagne…!”)

As I recall, we all had a good laugh as the minister and “Ol’ Blue Eyes” competed for attention!  But it occurred to me later that in some small way, that particular song was a fitting response to prayer, mine or anybody else’s, for that matter; for truly, as we prayerfully seek reach out well beyond ourselves to seek and to embrace the Lord our God and the unending hope, love peace and joy he offers in all of its fullness, we discover that  God has already proclaimed that we’re his; that we’re already so far under God’s skin, so deeply held in the heart of God that we’ve become a part of God’s purpose and plan for us and the world!

May it be said that our prayers, today and every day, reflect that incredibly graceful promise.  “And may thine be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2017 in Church, Ministry, Prayer, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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From Holiday to Holy Day… and Beyond: Find the Joy

Advent 3(a sermon for December 11, 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11)

Languishing in a dark and dank prison cell, John the Baptist – that fiery wilderness preacher of proclamation and repentance – sends his disciples with a message for Jesus; or should I say, a question: “‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”

It actually seems an odd question for John, of all people, to be asking; not to mention kind of defeatist!  After all, just a few months earlier it’d been John who had baptized Jesus in the River Jordan; John himself who had boldly and loudly proclaimed him as the anointed one of God: the Messiah, this long-expected mighty warrior who would avenge Israel by wiping out their Roman oppressors and establishing a new kingdom like that of King David so many generations before!  But that was then; and now, stuck in Herod’s jail with nothing else to do except pace the floor and ponder some of the things he’d been hearing about Jesus, there was plenty of room for second thoughts.  So he sends his messengers to ask Jesus, quite plainly, are you the chosen one or not?

Strange to hear such doubt coming from the same one who’d been so adamant that the world “prepare the way” for this Messiah’s coming; even stranger that here we are, on the third Sunday of Advent — just two weeks out from our celebration of Jesus’ birth – and suddenly we’re hearing one of Jesus’ first and most ardent followers – and his cousin, in fact (!) – casting such aspersions as to the legitimacy of his lordship!  But, writes David Lose of Lutheran Seminary, John’s “failure of confidence shouldn’t really surprise us.” After all, all that he’d predicted and longed for in Jesus – that is, the “summation and climax of all God’s promises to Israel” – had just not come to pass.  When he’d made that proclamation, when he’d been so full of hope and anticipation, when he’d been truly “fired up” for the kingdom to come,  John had literally “expected the world to change;  but instead]… things seem[ed] all too dreadfully the same.” So sitting alone in this prison cell and awaiting the carrying out of Herod’s death sentence, John is, to say the least, concerned, doubtful and well… disappointed.

And that, I suspect, is something that many of us can understand; especially two weeks from Christmas Day!

To quote David Lose again:  “Aren’t we also still waiting for the consummation of the Christmas promise… isn’t it precisely what is so wonderful about Christmas – the promises of peace on earth and goodwill among all – that [ends up] is also so difficult about Christmas,” in that so often one quick look at the headlines on any given day is enough to convince us that peace and goodwill are scarce commodities in this day and age!  Moreover, there’s no denying that you and I each have our own struggles to face as well: bad news from a doctor; the loss of a job; the dissolution of a relationship or the festering of an on-going conflict (or for that matter, a sore hip!); the kind of things that can truly have a way making one feel disappointed, if not downright concerned about the state of the world and one’s own place within it!

I mean, come on, it’s Christmas!  It’s bad enough we have to deal with the harsher realities of life all the rest of the year… how come is it that it’s right there before us at the very same time when everything else, even here at church, is focused on joy and cheer?  It just doesn’t seem to jibe that every Sunday we’re here singing songs and lighting candles that remind us of God’s sure and certain promise of hope, peace and joy; and then, after church, to go out into the Monday morning world only to find out it’s still the same old conflicted place it was before!  Where’s the hope in that; when is the peace that we so long for coming to fruition?  We sing it every year; in fact, we’re singing it again today: “Joy to the world!”  But in a world that seems rife with suffering, it’s disappointing that the question arises, but still you have to ask: where’s the joy?

What’s interesting, of course, is that when John’s disciples finally do bring Jesus this question about whether he’s truly “the one” they’ve been waiting for, Jesus is really too busy to answer.  After all, there are those who were born blind who need to receive their sight; there are people who had never before walked who are now ready to run; children who’ve never been able distinguish the sound of speech, but who now have this incredible, miraculous opportunity to hear the loving tone in their mother’s voice.  “Go back and tell John,” Jesus says to these messengers, “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the wretched of the earth [are learning] that God is on their side.” [The Message]  In other words, Jesus says, if what you were expecting was your hope made manifest and your joy made real, then here it is… “count yourselves most blessed!”

In other words – and Jesus actually goes on to say this to the crowd gathered around him – what were you expecting, anyway?  What kind of Messiah were you looking for; some rich, powerful ruler with beautiful robes and a golden throne?  Look at what you hear and see; remember what you’ve experienced:  this is your hope put into action; this is the peace that the world for which the world is yearning; THIS is the joy you’ve come to find!

It’s not unlike Isaiah’s wonderful vision of a barren desert wasteland that’s become a flowering pasture with cool, clear water flowing in abundant supply; that highway through the desert, a “Holy Way” on which “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing,” and “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”   Friends, that’s who Jesus is!  Our “holy way” is the life, death and resurrection of Christ, who restores our wholeness and sets before us a clear pathway even in the midst of our world’s harsh and relentless desert wilderness.  It is, however, an easy thing to miss: even John, for all his vision, failed to see the true pathway before him; and I dare say that you and I so often make the same mistake.

But here’s what Isaiah is quick to remind us: that the thing about a desert is that oftentimes its look can be deceiving.  At first glance it may well seem barren and lifeless, but keep looking – perhaps after a rainstorm, or maybe in the cool of the evening – and everything which before was hidden begins to bloom; that which before seemed dead and lifeless flourishes, and where once there was no hope at all is now filled with joy and gladness.  That’s how God’s love still works in our lives; and that’s how doubt dissipates and true Christmas comes into our lives: it’s like the “abundant blossoming” of the desert in our own lives.

Where’s the joy?  You simply have to look what God is doing, and you’ll find it there in the blooming!

For a couple of years while I was in high school, I was part of an unusually close Sunday school class.  There were seven or eight of us, all juniors and seniors, guided by a wonderful older lady who loved us even as she was perplexed by us.  Looking back, I realize now that we weren’t very good about following the curriculum; we spent most of our time talking about God, life and most everything else under the sun. But a lot of our awareness of faith came out of that class, and it did so in unique and powerful ways.

One of the people in that class was my friend Joe.  I’ve told you before about Joe; and he was, well… the best way I can describe him to you is that he was a big guy, in every sense of the word.  Not only was he as wide as he was tall, he was also loud, outspoken, a bit of a braggart, and had the tendency to run off at the mouth at times.  But you also couldn’t help but like the guy, even though he could easily drive you crazy!

Well, it was about Christmastime and in this Sunday School class we were all talking about our plans for the holidays.  And Joe was going on and on in Joe fashion about what he was going to get for Christmas, about how big his family’s celebration was, and how his Christmas tree was going to be better than anybody else’s in town; like I say, this is how every conversation went with Joe!  But at some point there was a pause in the discussion, and one of the girls in the class, a girl we’ll call Mary, finally spoke in a shaken voice barely above a whisper.  “Well,” she said, “I guess we’re not going to have a Christmas tree in our house this year.”

And in the safety and love of that room, Mary then went on to tell us about a step mother who was spending most of her days in a drunken stupor, and about a father, powerless over his wife’s alcoholism, who didn’t dare put up a Christmas tree for fear she’d knock it over or accidentally set it on fire.  Basically it was easier for him to avoid the whole Christmas thing than to deal with the real problem.  And Mary told us all about it; in fact, it might have been the very first time she’d ever told anybody about what was going on in her house, and you could have heard a pin drop in that room. Nobody else in the class – not even Joe – could speak.

Well, needless to say, we all went home that day feeling a little less Christmassy than we’d come in; but the next day after school there was a knock on my door.  It was Joe – and by his big red, puffy eyes, I could tell that he’d been crying.  Without even saying hello, he thrust at me this thick wad of folded-up paper, saying only, “Can you sign this?”  I realized immediately that this was in fact, a Christmas card, one that not only opened but unfolded into this huge, two by six foot picture of a beautiful, fully decorated, evergreen Christmas tree!

Though I already knew the answer, I looked up at this big hulk of a guy to ask him why; and with tears again brimming in his eyes, he just shook his head and said simply, “Everybody should have a nice Christmas.”

And, together with the others in the class, we took that card to Mary’s house and gave it to her.  Thinking back on it, we were kids and we really didn’t know what to say or do; so we simply gave her a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas.  What I remember the most about it now is that when she hugged us back – and she really hugged us – she cried harder than almost anyone I’d ever seen before.

Now, I don’t know what’s happened to Mary over the years, but wherever she is, friends, I know she’s carrying around a bit of “the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.”  It was the experience of a blooming desert; the love of God working small miracles through the big heart of a blustering teenager.  And there’s a great deal of joy to be found in that.

In a work entitled Jerusalem Daybook, the poet James Baxter once wrote that if you want to find joy, then “feed the hungry.  Give drink to the thirsty; give clothes to those who lack them; give hospitality to strangers; look after the sick.

Moreover, “Bail people out of jail, visit them in jail, and look after them when they get out of jail… help the doubtful to clarify their own minds and make their own decisions.  Console the sad… forgive what seems to be harm done to yourself; put up with difficult people [and] pray for whatever has life… where these things happen,” says Baxter, “God is present.”

Beloved, I know that sometimes at Christmas – and for that matter the rest of the year – we’re tempted to give in to doubting that true joy can ever be found in this world.  But before any of us become too disappointed, we need to remember that even amidst the challenges of this world, we are the recipients of God’s promise of a Savior in Christ Jesus, a joyful promise that continues to be fulfilled in our hearing wherever the blind see and the lame leap for joy.

Let us be diligent in finding that joy in this Christmas and always; and may God bless us, everyone, as we do.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2016 in Advent, Jesus, Joy, Life, Old Testament, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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