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Christmas, Even Now

Well, once again at long last, it’s Christmas Eve! 

I have to say, friends, that of all the times we come together as God’s people throughout the year; this is probably the night I look forward to most. In fact, I figured it out and this makes 37 years – 9 of them right here at East Church – that I’ve had the great joy and privilege of leading Christmas Eve worship as a pastor; and I’ve got to tell you, all of those years and all of those times shared in worship are filled with memories and meaning that fill up my heart more than I can possibly express.

I’ve actually been remembering something tonight that was said to me at another church many Christmas Eves ago by someone who came through the vestibule to greet me after worship.  She shook my hand quite vigorously, she gave me this great big hug (as we are fond of saying up in Maine, she “muckled right on to me!”) and then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “Oh, thank you, thank you so much for this service!  I just love coming to your church on Christmas Eve, because it’s the same old thing every year!”  

Ummm… you’re welcome?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about that as of late, because I realize that if there’s one thing we can say about anything having to do with Christmas Eve 2020, it’s most assuredly that this year it’s not the “same old thing!”  In fact, I think we can safely say that this year’s celebration of Christmas is to say the very least, unprecedented and nothing we could have possibly imagined a year ago.  And I’ll confess, it still seems inconceivable that we aren’t able to be together as a church family in this sanctuary on this holy night… and yet, out of an abundance of concern for the safety and well-being of everyone around us (to say nothing of our love for one another), it is both appropriate and good, friends, that this year we aren’t gathering for in-person worship.

So yes, this year is different… and yet, I dare say that there’s so much that’s still the same.  After all, we’re still worshiping together as God’s people… we’re just doing so from different places and in a multitude of different ways.  We’re all still singing all those songs and carols … or at least, I trust that we’re all singing from wherever we are!  We’ve still been reading that old and wonderfully familiar story of our Savior’s birth… perhaps this year we’ve even heard it in a way that’s fresh and new!   And in a few minutes, we’ll be lighting candles that will remind us that the light of Christ has come into our darkened world, singing “Silent Night” as we do.

So considering all that, in many ways I still have to agree with that woman who spoke to me with such joy and thanksgiving all those years ago: yes, in every way that matters, it is the “same old thing” again this Christmas, even now… and thank the Lord for it!

Actually, you know what; I also have to tell you that one of my favorite moments every Christmas Eve is one that few people in the church ever get to see: it’s after the last carol has been sung, after the organ has been switched off, the candles extinguished, and all of you have gone home, perchance to get a few hours of slumber before the kids are up and the Christmas celebration starts in earnest.  The heat gets turned back here at the church, the lights are switched off; and finally, after I do a last-minute check of things, I lock up for the night and head outside to go home.

And every year, that’s when it happens: I’ll look up at the night sky, feel the cut of the night air, hear the utter quiet that has descended upon the busy streets; and suddenly it’ll hit me:  Dear Lord, at last it’s Christmas!  And all over this community and nation and world this night, people are celebrating and singing and worshipping – almost certainly in a different way, but still celebrating nonetheless – all because God so loved this world that he gave us his son. 

In these moments I’m inevitably reminded of the words of a poem that I have known and loved for many years now; written by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who was also the composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:”

 
 

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Christmas, Now More Than Ever: God, With Us

(a sermon for December 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Advent; fourth in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25)

Before the magi followed a star rising in the east or a motely group of shepherds heard the song of the heavenly host…

…before a stable full of animals became the makeshift birthplace for a baby king or when Bethlehem became the place where a ruler was to born…

…even before a young girl is told by an angel of the Lord that she was to bear a child who would be called “Son of God…”

…long before any of this comes to pass, the story of Christmas begins: with a weak and rather wicked ruler by the name of Ahaz, and a battle of… faith versus fear.

Now, what’s interesting about this passage from the 7th chapter of Isaiah, and the reason we tend to return to it every Advent season, is that it does contain the prophecy of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; a single verse that provides the perfect entry into the familiar gospel story of Mary and Joseph and the manger birth of the Holy Child.  Yet the not so familiar story is the one about what prompted Isaiah’s prophecy in the first place: Ahaz, you see, was the king of Judah who came into power around 735 B.C. when he was about 20 years old (!) and ruled for about 20 years; he was the son of King Jotham, who was regarded as a “good king” of Judah, which makes it all the more interesting that Ahaz was just the opposite: we’re not exactly sure why, but he literally seemed to relish going against the precepts of God.  It is said that Ahaz’s many destructive practices – idol worship, sacrilege against the temple of the Lord, even the sacrifice of his own children (!) – contributed to the ultimate downfall of the entire kingdom of Judah!

And as we pick up the story in our text for this morning, Judah is in fact surrounded by at least two foreign armies and quite literally facing its own imminent destruction.  Just prior to where we started reading today we’re told that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind,” and as you can imagine, King Ahaz is evaluating the situation and he’s worried, fearful for the future of Judah and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being and survival. And yet, here’s the thing: all this worry and fear is happening despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail.  And we’re told that Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise:  ask for anything, the Lord says, “let it be deep as as Sheol or high as heaven.”  Or as The Message translates it, “Be extravagant.  Ask for the moon!”

Now at this point and perhaps to his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, God offers up a sign anyway; that of which we know so well: “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  But even after this news, this monumental news, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left in this passage with the clear sense that even with this incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in his fear of what his enemies were planning to even notice what God was even at that very moment doing in faithfulness and with love.

Not exactly the kind of story you want to hear just before Christmas, is it?

But while Ahaz’s response is certainly short-sighted and more than a little self-serving; friends, I have to confess to you this morning that I get it, most especially right now.  Because if there’s nothing else that can be said about our lives in this strange, woe begotten year of 2020 it’s that when the world goes crazy, fear tends to come into direct opposition to faith.  It’s one thing, after all, to profess that we’ll all get through this global pandemic and we won’t get Covid-19 and that life is going to return to normal sooner rather than later; but it’s quite another thing to not let our worries and fears about the uncertainty of it all get the better of us. 

And never mind the pandemic for a moment; I dare say that every single one of us can name a time or situation in our lives when there has quite literally existed a tug of war between “keeping the faith” on the one side and “giving in to fear” on the other.  And the truth of the matter is that when your back is against the wall and all the problems of this life just seem to keep piling on with no end in sight, it’s hard to accept the promise of relief or support coming anytime soon; easier, if I might quote Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, “to trust in alliances and arms and investments and securities [rather] than God,” because to “not worry about tomorrow… is easier said than done.” Much easier, even more tempting at times, to give up, give in and let fear rule the day; that’s the problem, you see, for the King Ahazzes of every generation, and for that matter, that’s also the problem for you and me in these times in which we’re living.  But there are consequences for that kind of stance: as the Lord himself says to Ahaz (again, just prior to our reading this morning), “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” (v. 9)

So isn’t it good, then, that God offers us the gift of standing firm amidst the fear?  Isn’t it good that God is with us in the standing?  And isn’t it wonderful in that it’s all going to come about… because of a child?

“Look,” says the prophet, “a woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” a name that literally means “God is with us.”  This will be a child who will be barely grown before he’s able to make good and moral choices; a child who will be able in all things to “refuse the evil and choose the good;” a child who will make war and conflict and division a thing of the past; a child who will bring faith in the face of all fear.  And perhaps most importantly, the birth of this child was to be the sure and certain promise that God would remain faithful to his people no matter how fearful they had become.  God would be with them… come what may, and forever more.

As I say, I suppose had I been in Ahaz’s situation I might have been skeptical.  After all, what possible help can a small, newborn baby possibly be against two powerful armies just about to end his kingdom; better that “the sign” from God be some show of military force!  But then, isn’t this what God always does, to bring forth hope and love and life in the places where one least expects it?  The truth is that God always enters in to our places of greatest weakness to stand firm with us and for us no matter how fearful we become.  To quote the Rev. Brent Neely, a Lutheran pastor and writer from Cape Elizabeth, Maine (!), “Even in this day and age when fear runs amuck, we have no need to fear for a small child has proven to us that God is with us and that God is faithful to his promises.  When our faith is weak [and] our fear is strong,” Neely writes, “God steps in without us even asking for it.  God tells us, ‘I am with you!’  Hope is coming [and] the enemy that you fear is nothing compared to the promise that God has made with us.”

You know, truth be told, I wonder sometimes if Joseph was at all skeptical about the promise of this child who was about to come into his life.  As the story is told in our text for this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed.  Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world.  Surely, there must have been some significant and legitimate fear in considering just how very much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!  You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me?  Why us?  Why now?  And what if it doesn’t happen?

Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world.  That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord; on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…

…but that was the sign, wasn’t it?

The sign that the Lord himself has given us: what you and I would deem a miracle; a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory.  That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance.  It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God whose promise it is to be with us… come what may and forevermore.

This is the true gift of Christmas, beloved, one that we need now more than ever: the Lord’s own sign of a child that shows us, again and again and again, that God is still and ever and always watching over the fearful and fretful people of God’s choice.  And most especially in these strange and uncertain days, that this amazing, holy child continues to be a sign unto us and an unending reminder that God is with us still, offering to us strength and love in our times of weakness and assuring us that we are never alone, no matter the size and force of the enemies we face.  No matter what we’ve had to face in 2020 or what may befall us in 2021, we are God’s people and God is with us, and so we have no reason to fear.

Hope is coming to us, and a small child is the sign of its coming.

For the child to be born is named Immanuel… God, with us.

Thanks be to God in Jesus, our Immanuel.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved

 

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Christmas, Now More Than Ever: A Soul Magnified and a Spirit Rejoicing

(a sermon for December 13, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)

Every year as we come to this part of the Christmas story, it strikes me that although Mary is almost certainly the most celebrated and venerated woman in all of human history, the truth is that biblically, historically and otherwise, we really don’t know all that much about her.  

To begin with, we know next to nothing of Mary’s genealogy: even though we’re told that Jesus comes from the house and family of King David, it’s Joseph’s family line that’s recorded in Matthew’s gospel, not Mary’s; and in fact, Mary is only mentioned there as the wife of  Joseph and the one of whom Jesus was born,” (Matthew 1:16).  There is a reference in John to Mary having a sister (19:25), and then in our reading today we learn of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist; but that’s about it.  Basically, most of what we know about Mary’s background comes from ancient sources and our understanding of the culture of the time. 

We are pretty sure, for instance, that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Mary was probably no older than fourteen or fifteen years old: no longer a child, but barely a woman and certainly not a woman of any kind of social standing or power.  And we know that she lived in Nazareth, a small and secluded village in southern Galilee of no more than 2,000 people; which made it not only an insignificant town in the eyes of the Roman government, but also a place off the beaten track even from the point of view of the Jews.   Nazareth was just another country town full of people struggling to find some meaning in the midst of it all; and in the midst of it all, Mary was simply another daughter of the town, albeit one engaged to be married to Joseph, a local carpenter. And by the way, at that time, engagement was actually fairly common for a girl Mary’s age; and so, up until this point in her life, Mary’s thoughts would well have been filled with hopes and dreams for her future; she would no doubt have been feeling this intermingling of joy, excitement and fear, all of it in anticipation of what her life was going to be with this man who would soon be her new husband.

But now, of course, everything was different; everything had changed the moment the angel Gabriel had come to Mary with the most incredible announcement: that not only had she found favor with God, but that she – Mary, of all people (!) – would bear in her womb a child, a child conceived of the Holy Spirit, a child who would be no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God, come to establish God’s kingdom on earth.  And though in that singular moment her mind was most certainly racing and her heart reeling at this “annunciation,” Mary had said yes: if this was according to God’s word, she’d said to the angel, then she’d willingly be a handmaiden unto the Lord.

Still, as the days passed and the new reality of her life to come began to settle in for her, Mary surely must have pondered plenty of reasons to be filled with fear at the prospect of this child growing within her.  We don’t need to know the history of those days for us to safely assume that were going to be questions coming from family and friends; that there would certainly be scandalous gossip spread amongst neighbors and townsfolk about “that girl;” and then there was the matter of her fiancée: Mary had no idea at all of how this “holy birth” might affect her relationship with Joseph. Needless to say, this was not how Mary had imagined her life unfolding; this was nothing like how it was supposed to be.  Angels and babies and the Holy Spirit – to say nothing of the favor of God (!) – all of this notwithstanding, it was… a disruption of Mary’s life and living.  Everything was changing forever; and though scripture does not allude to this at all, one has to imagine that down deep in Mary’s heart, there had to be this tiny aching that in a very real way, life had she’d always known it had come to an end.

I suspect that most of us, at one time or another and in one way or another, know something of what it is to have our lives totally and utterly disrupted.  Perhaps it was an unexpected illness or the loss of a loved one; maybe you lost your job and you’re faced with a financial burden that’s untenable; or it could well be like right now when you’re fearful of what might happen with Covid-19 as 2020 becomes 2021 and you’re uncertain as to what to do about… anything at all.  It doesn’t even have to be bad news, per se; it’s simply the experience of having everything you want and need and expect to be normal in your life and living to suddenly be upended for what seems like… forever… and you just don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it.

Actually, it makes a lot of sense to me that soon after Mary had learned the news of her pregnancy, she “set out and went with haste” to the hill country nearby Nazareth, to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who, at nearly forty years her senior, was herself miraculously expecting her own child. Because when disruption has come and chaos abounds, you’ve got to do something, right; if for no other reason than to sort things out and talk to somebody who might understand.  As Renita Weems has written, “How do you defend a blessing you cannot explain? [and] who would believe her?”  Only, perhaps, one who knew such a blessing in her own life.

And as it turns out, Elizabeth not only knew the blessing of her own impending birth but also that of Mary’s: the joy of this child of God’s coming into the world is so great that even the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.  “Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the child you will bear,” Elizabeth cries out to Mary.  “…and blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”  [NIV]

And as Luke’s gospel tells the story, it’s at that precise moment that everything comes into focus for Mary; for it’s now that she bursts into song, praising God and singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”   And with a voice that is borne of an unfettered heart, Mary sings of all the incredible, unthinkable possibilities: that God’s mercy would extend not solely to those in positions of worldly power, as the Romans would them believe, but “to all who fear him from generation to generation;”  that God with mighty strength would bring down the powerful from their thrones, scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; and that with equal strength he would lift up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich and the powerful away empty.

Mary’s song, that which has been known throughout history as the Magnificat, makes it clear: that everything that was ever known to be true about this world and about life as it was ever known was now about to be turned upside down and inside out; and it was all happening by God’s grace and purpose, and all because of this tiny little baby (!)growing in Mary’s womb!  So what might have been seen as a mere disruption was in fact a blessing of divine proportion, the beginning of a new world created and nurtured at the hand of a loving and redeeming God who will do great things according to the promise he made to all of God’s people at the time of Abraham.

And Mary… Mary, of all people… her soul magnified and her spirit rejoicing “in God her Savior,” was now not only assured of the importance of her role in this holy story, but also ready to walk boldly and faithfully into that new world confident in that blessing and the promise that God’s “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

And I guess the question for you and me, who are dwelling amidst our own worldly disruptions – especially this Christmas – are we ready to do the same?  As this Advent time of waiting, watching and preparing continues, are we ready to see the ongoing disruptions as part of a perhaps yet-to-be unrevealed blessing that God in Emmanuel is ready to bestow?  Will we be bold enough in our life and living – and faithful in the act – to find the true joy of what even now our Lord is doing in the world and in our lives?

As you’re well aware, over the years my guitar and I have had the great pleasure of leading some Christmas sing-a-longs with a great many groups of little children: not only have there been lots of Sunday School kids to sing with, but I’ve also been lucky enough to volunteer at pre-schools and in elementary school classrooms.  And along the way I’ve made an interesting, if unsurprising, discovery: when you tell these kids to sing loud, especially when it involves Christmas songs like “Rudolph” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by and large they tend to do it! 

What’s even more interesting to me, though, is just who amongst these children ends up singing the loudest; and it’s not always the one you’d expect. Sometimes the most outgoing of children will immediately get bashful and “clam up” when it comes to singing aloud; they might have the most beautiful, angelic voices going, but you’d never know it, because for whatever reason, they can’t bring themselves to share it with anyone!  By the same token, however, there’s always a couple of kids who sing with every bit of energy and volume they can muster.  And it doesn’t matter if they’re just a tad off key, nor if their volume has long since moved beyond “singing” and approaching the level of “screaming;” nor is it all that important that they’ve gone a note or two ahead of everybody else in the room!  They’re singing, and the amazing thing about that is, nobody expects it!

Some years ago I was singing at the nursery school at the church I was serving, and there was this little girl who was singing with everything she had; and I noticed that all the while she was singing, her teachers were looking at one another in astonished amazement!  So I asked the teacher about it afterward, and she shared with me that this was the little girl who ordinarilywas painfully shy with all the other children and always extremely quiet! (I guess I fixed that, because trust me, she weren’t quiet no more!  In fact, the teachers had kind of a hard time settling her down!) But how wonderful was that; this little girl was so caught up in the utter joy of singing those great Christmas songs, she’d lost herself in the wonder and found her voice of joy!

Well, this very different Christmas is coming soon, and despite all the disruptions you and I are facing this year, the fact remains that we need it now, more than ever.  And there are many, many songs that we are given to sing as Christmas comes – songs of faith, songs of hope, songs of joy – but the question is, how loudly are you going to sing them?  Are you able to look into – and beyond (!) – all the disruptions of this life that you might discover the blessing and thus find your voice of joy?  There is a wonderful opportunity on this of all years to proclaim the coming of Christmas by singing your own songs of surprising, wonderful joy; this joy that is rooted in the love of Jesus, our Emmanuel; can this be the year when that joy will burst forth defiantly from you in every part of your life?  Perhaps, with your soul magnified and your spirit rejoicing, your very life might sing and dance the song of your Savior God!

I hope and pray that today and in every day that’s coming that yours will be the loudest voice of all, a voice proclaiming with all joy our Lord’s great and redeeming love.

Thanks be to God!  

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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