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On the Way to the Holy Night: A Thrill of Hope

(a sermon for December 1, 2019, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Isaiah 9:2-9 and Romans 13:11-14)

At a time of the year that is so traditionally bathed in all manner of light I’ve always found it interesting, and quite telling, that the season of Advent (and the celebration of Christmas that it anticipates) begins in darkness.

Not that that our modern world leaves a whole lot of room for darkness: being a lover of all things Christmas related, I’ve also taken notice that whereas most people used to wait until at least the day after Thanksgiving to light up their outdoor Christmas displays these days it’s not unusual to see Santa and his reindeer all lit up and “ready to glow” mid-way through November! In fact, when I was in Maine a few weeks back just after Halloween, I was driving down this back country road at just around dusk, came around this corner and by golly (!) there was this house with its yard filled to overflowing with inflatables and twinkling lights!  Too early?  Yes, probably… and too much?  Well, all I’ll say is “to each their own.”  Mostly, though, I feel about this the way I do about playing Christmas music “early;” like it’s such a short season to enjoy Christmas lights, so why not?  And besides, in these times in which we live who wouldn’t agree with the sentiment expressed in that song of the season, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute… we may be rushing things but deck the halls again now!”  So I say, have at it… and Merry Christmas!

I will have to say, however, that over the years I’ve come to appreciate the notion that where Christmas lights are concerned, less is sometimes more and in the process makes, if you will, an “enlightening” statement of faith.  Years ago, back in my student pastor days, I spent more than a few December nights driving back from seminary classes, quite often along those back roads, and it’s funny what things you always remember: there was this farmhouse up toward Grindstone, Maine, set back from the road at the end of a long stretch of woods; where the people who lived there had taken an “understated approach” to their holiday decorating.  By that I mean they’d simply strung some colored lights around a waist-high evergreen tree and let it glow in the midst of the winter darkness.  Nothing unusual, I know; except that this little Christmas tree stood a long way apart from the house and barn, out in the pasture; at least a couple hundred yards away, if not more.  And that, of course, ignited my curiosity:  why had they done that?  Why wasn’t this Christmas tree standing closer to the farmhouse or out by the barn? Had they actually gone to all the trouble of stringing an extension cord that far out?  Was this a Christmas tree intended for this farmer’s herd of dairy cows or had it been set there for the pleasure of passing white tailed deer? I tell you, the possibilities of it staggered the imagination (!), and I was sorely tempted to pull in to this farmhouse, knock on their front door and ask the people who lived there to tell me all about it!

But as I thought further about it, it began to make perfect sense that they’d put their Christmas tree way out there in the middle of a darkened pasture; because this would most certainly be a spot where the brilliance of those lights could shine most prominently, piercing through the winter darkness and unalloyed by any and all distractions of the world surrounding it. Or, maybe the family in that house just wanted to be able to look out their living room window and simply bask in the beauty and wonder of a Christmas tree!  All I know is that this little tree immediately became an advent parable for me, the affirmation of a divine promise fulfilled and a reminder that no matter how dark it may have seemed to be, “the people who walked in darkness [had] seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light [had] shined.”

A thrill of hope, and a cause of rejoicing in a dark and weary world.

It’s important, I think, to take note of the fact that the season of Advent which begins this morning is not to be thought of as merely as a “Countdown to Christmas.”  This isn’t to say that these four weeks aren’t about waiting and watching for something to happen – after all, our very word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus which means “coming” – but there’s more to these four weeks of the Christian year than simply getting ready for December 25 to come.  Moreover, even though Advent is certainly about a symbolic waiting for the coming of the Christ child in the manger of Bethlehem, making room in our hearts for this wondrous gift of God given 2,000 years ago, it’s about even more than that.  The season of advent is also about a gift that is yet to come: our waiting for Christ’s return in glory and that moment when God’s amazing vision for his creation comes to full fruition; for that time when all that we have yearned for in faith and hope finally becomes a reality in the world and in our lives.  As we regularly proclaim in our times of communion, this is about the “mystery and wonder of our Christian faith” manifest in the sure and certain promise that “Christ will come again.”

Ultimately, you see, it’s this “coming” for which you and I are waiting and watching and preparing.  Author and New Testament scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk actually refers to this as seeing “the coming of Christ in double-exposure: looking forward to the second coming Christ in the future even as we look forward to celebrating the first going of Christ that lies in the past.”  But just as our “Way to the Holy Night” of Christmas Eve and Day begins not with shepherds, wise men or a heavenly chorus but rather with Isaiah’s promise of great light in a darkened world, so you and I who are dwelling in the midst of our own darkness also await, as the song says, “the breaking of a new and glorious morn.”

But make no mistake… that day is coming soon, and very soon.  In the words of our text for this morning, “the night is far gone, the day is near.”

In truth of fact, this relatively brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans amounts to what the Rev. Susan Eastman of Duke Divinity School refers to as an affirmation that “as Christians we are all ‘morning people.’”  Yes, it’s dark now, but “the time is just before dawn, the sky is brightening, the alarm is ringing, day is at hand.  It is time to rouse our minds from slumber, to be alert to what God is doing in the world, and to live in accordance with God’s coming salvation.”  “You know what time it is,” writes Paul, “how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”  In other words, we know what God has already done in Jesus Christ; we know how the people who walked in darkness saw a great light, and we know that it will be so for us as well and that this light is very, very near to us indeed!  We are not people of the night; we are the people on whom light has shined, the ones for whom a child was born, the one who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We are the ones who have been given salvation and the true light of life through the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are ones who, soon and very soon, will know the full and brilliant light of his glory; so, says Paul, as we await that moment in its fullness “let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices… for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Now, what’s interesting here about Paul’s advent promise of light is that it immediately connects it to, shall we say, a more ethical and moral stance in life.  “Let us live honorably as in the day,” says Paul, or as The Message bluntly translates it, “we can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight.” (One thing can be said for certain, friends: no matter what the translation of scripture happens to be, friends, nobody can ever accuse Paul of sugar-coating its truth!)  The point here is that if we are truly people of the light, then we need to live unto the fullness of God’s promises in the here and now so that our hearts might be truly ready for the day of wonder that is coming soon.  And the time for this is now; for you see, the darkness is passing into daylight and a new age is dawning.  So it behooves us, as believers and as true “advent people,” quoting The Message once again, that we need to “get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute.  Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!”

Seems to me that’s not only a pretty good way to start out on our way to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, but also a clear directive as to living out our Christian faith in this twilight time between the darkness of these days and the “not yet but soon to come” great light of a new day.

There’s so much I love about this sacred season and most especially in the traditions of worship that we share together in this place, beginning with lighting the advent candles of hope, peace, joy, love.  I love how from week to week as we light those candles “advent-ually” (!) we have this full circle of light that, with the addition of the light of the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve, becomes the light that gets passed from person to person in thanks and praise for God’s light coming into this world in the guise of a child.  It’s one of the most beautiful and powerful times we share as a worshipping congregation, and I have to say that not only is it one of my favorite parts of Christmas, pastorally speaking it’s probably my favorite moment of the entire year, singing “Silent Night” and watching this sanctuary go from relative darkness to one filled with the glow of candlelight.  I love it because it’s the culmination of this advent journey we’ve taken to the manger of Bethlehem and the gift that’s been given us there; but I also love it because in the larger sense, it represents the great and holy light that has shone into the deep darkness of life and living, as well as a potent reminder that though even now that darkness can seem overwhelming to us to the point of seeming rather hopeless at times, nonetheless “the night is far gone, the day is near,” and in the advent of Christ there is a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices… and in the process the pathway toward a new and better and blessed life opens up before us.

This light of HOPE and the thrill it brings is ours, yours and mine, beloved; and so, as our advent journey “on the way to the Holy Night” begins… so “let us [truly] lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Child of Light, Child of Grace

christmas-eve-2016(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2016, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)

One of the things that I find most compelling and beautiful about the story of Christmas is how the deep mystery and profound wonder of it is found amidst the most basic and earthy things of life: in the mud and hay of a stable with the sound and smell of animals all around; in the cold dampness of a silent, winter night; and especially in the most natural and some might say commonplace event of human life, and yet one that at the same time is among its most powerful and unique experiences:  the birth of a child!

One night a few Christmases ago I was out on one last quick trip out to a store to do some shopping and found myself waiting in a very long checkout line with a young couple who had also been out shopping, but in the company of their newborn: a beautiful, bright-eyed little baby boy no more than a month or two old.  Now, these parents were as proud of – and as attentive to – this child as you would expect them to be; and if their shopping cart was any indication, that little one was going to have way more gifts than he would ever know what to do with!

But it was also getting late, and the baby was understandably getting a little fussy (hey, we were all getting a little fussy; that line was very long, indeed!), and Mommy and Daddy were doing everything they could to calm him down.  They passed him back and forth, they gave him a bottle and a pacifier, they even did what I used to call “the Daddy Shuffle,” but nothing was working!  So by the time we were getting near to the counter, Mom and Dad were working double time to get the shopping cart unloaded; but it was too late, and the baby started to cry!  And although his parents were doing a commendable job even now in trying to settle him down, it was clear that this child had a very powerful set of lungs!

As I watched this, it got me to remembering Lisa’s and my three children when they were newborns, and how we realized early on that the cry of a new born baby is one of the beautiful and most awful sounds in all the world!  On the one hand, that sound is filled with what Patricia DeJong has described as “the urgent, insistent power of new life,” but at the same time, anybody who cares for a baby can also tell you that it is also an equally urgent demand for satisfaction and immediate attention: this very basic, human need each one of us is born with to be fed, to be changed, or simply to be held and loved.

And I’m watching these new parents, and I’m thinking, “There you go (!); if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is just the beginning!  Everything you know is going to be turned upside down and inside out; you’re in for the biggest change of your lives, a reversal of life as you once knew it.  Your house, your eating habits, your ability to sleep, to be awake, to work and even to love all change simply by the virtue of this child coming into the world.”  It does seem like a monumental change, and it is: but as all this was going on in the checkout line, here was the thing that I couldn’t help noticing: that one look at these parents, and you knew they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Well, beloved, tonight there has been another birth: “a child has been born for us, a son given to us,” a child born in the manger of Bethlehem, surrounded only by his mother and his earthly father, along with assortment of farm animals and some visiting shepherds. Tonight we’ve happened upon a moment that’s utterly silent and filled with serenity, and notable for its incredible simplicity; but make no mistake, this is a birth that’s turning the world upside down and is about to disrupt everything we’ve ever held to be true about life, for the sake of making all things new!  For unto us this night is a child who brings good tidings to the afflicted and binds up the wounds of the broken hearted; this is a child who by his very being will bring forth gladness rather than mourning, and praise instead of a faint spirit; this is a child who heralds a new realm where love and justice will prevail, and where the peace we’ve longed for so long will finally come to pass.  This is the child who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  He is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord; the one who will grow to be prophet and teacher, healer and master and friend, the Savior of us all; but on this silent, holy night, he’s simply a baby, a newborn crying out in the night to be held, and to be fed and to be loved.

Throughout the weeks of Advent, we’ve talked a lot about waiting, watching and preparing for the moment of this birth. Some of that has involved getting ready for the big celebration of Christmas that has already begun; but it’s also been, and primarily so, about preparing our hearts spiritually for his coming.  And one of the most important parts of preparing is understanding that our coming to the manger tonight is not the end of the journey, but merely its beginning.  It’s the knowledge that now the baby grows up, and that now we are being called to walk with this child Jesus as he grows to adulthood, as he begins his ministry of salvation on the roads of Galilee, as he heals the sick and gives hope to those without hope.  It’s the realization that as eventually he turns his heart toward Jerusalem and finally to the cross of Golgotha, we will have to go with him. You see, as beautiful and joyous a thing it is for us to approach the manger tonight, you and I need to understand that this is the beginning of something more; something deeper; something wholly divine.  Friends, this silent, holy night as an affirmation that Jesus has come to change our world, to give us life, and in end of that life, as the song goes, “to take us to heaven and live with [him] there.”

This the journey that awaits us, beloved; but may I say here that it’s a journey that will wait till tomorrow?   Because tonight is a time for adoration; it’s our moment to come to the manger and gaze upon this “Child of Light” who lies sleeping there while angels keep glad watch from above.  Tonight is our night to be as the shepherds  who were compelled to come and see what God has done; tonight is our time to be as the magi, bringing the child our gifts of the heart that pay him homage.  Tomorrow the journey begins; but on this holy night, we come bringing praise and thanksgiving for the gift we have received of this “Child of Grace;” this little baby boy who with every breath, brings us closer and closer to the Almighty and his love.

Thanks be to God, who by grace and in the fullness of time, has sent his son to us bathed in his glorious light.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

And AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2016 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Sermon

 

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What Shall You Do With This Child?

christmas_nativity_at_sun_rise

(a meditation for Christmas Eve 2015, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)

Christmas – true Christmas – is the divine expression of infinite love.  If there’s one message that each one of us takes from this place tonight, that should be it; for above and beyond everything else we attach to this season, first and foremost, Christmas is about God’s coming to us in the guise of a child.  The old and familiar story that we’ve told again tonight is no less than that of the heavenly God who bends low to the earth that he might truly dwell among us. And so Christmas is truly, and quite literally, a supernatural tale; and yet, it’s also a story that is wholly and, might I add, delightfully earthy and altogether human!

To begin with, it all unfolds in, of all places, a manger… a barn, really… what I remember one little boy in a Christmas Pageant years ago referring to (and quite disgustedly, I might add) as “a dirty, smelly old cow shack!”   It doesn’t get any earthier than that; and what a place for any baby to be born, much less the Son of God!  And then there’s Mary and Joseph: two people who were young, impoverished and in a very real sense, anonymous; not only in the sense that they were far from home, but also far removed from any kind of societal status or power prestige: these were two people who were pretty much the last ones you’d ever expect to bring forth a Messiah into the world.

And yet, here they are on a silent, holy night, looking on in awesome wonder as “Christ the Savior is Born.”

Actually, and I mean this in the most reverent way possible, I’m thinking this is where our manger scenes get it wrong.  I mean, most nativity displays usually have the baby Jesus lying at the center of a stable in a feed trough of hay, with Mary kneeling at one side of him with a look of saintly adoration on her face; very often with arms held up and palms uplifted in prayer.  And then there’s Joseph; looking all stalwart and dependable without much emotion at all!

It’s a wonderful, peaceful image, and I love it… but in truth of fact, anyone who has ever experienced or shared in the experience of childbirth will tell you it’s not like that at all!  Having a baby is this incredible mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration, abject fear and utter excitement; and you have to suspect what was happening with Mary and Joseph, at least at in those first few moments, was closer to breathless surprise than quiet adoration!  It really seems to me as though a more accurate depiction of the manger scene would be for a truly overwhelmed Mary to be holding this little baby in her arms and wondering aloud, “What Child Is This?” while a rather befuddled Joseph stands by with what can only be described as a “goofy, new father grin” on his face!

In fact, I suspect that what Mary and Joseph were doing on that first Christmas night was taking turns cuddling that baby!  They were doing all the things that new parents do; they were busy counting fingers and toes; marveling at the softness of his skin and just how very tiny Jesus was.  And therein lies the true miracle of Christmas: that Jesus was not simply a ceramic figure in a crèche; no mere representation of the divine.  Rather Jesus, God incarnate, was a real, live, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating baby; a tiny, helpless infant whose greatest need in those moments of his birth was simply to be held, and touched, and cared for, and loved.

And here’s the thing, friends; all of this?  Yes, it’s what makes this night and our worship together a truly “wonder-full” experience and it’s what draws us yet again to the manger; but it’s also an incredible reminder that this tale of Christmas is not only Mary and Joseph’s story but also ours.  As I said before, Christmas is the ultimate expression of the divine; love made manifest in the manger of Bethlehem.  But just as importantly, Christmas is also found in the receptive hearts of women, men and children who would receive that divine expression as their own.  For as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in words that were both prophetic and utterly immediate: “Unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given.”

Unto us… unto you, and unto me… and the question becomes, what shall we do with this child? How shall we respond to the gift of a Son who is to be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and yet is still just a baby?   In a very real sense, friends, each one of us tonight are being asked to play the part of a Mary or a Joseph; in that we’re being called to birth and cradle the Christ Child in our own lives. It seems to me that like Mary and Joseph before us, each one of us has to give an answer to this gift; and how we answer determines whether what we recall tonight is simply an old story to be told once a year; or else a way of life and living that transcends each and every day!

Scripture tells us, of course, that Mary and Joseph had already said “yes” to the gift: Mary at the moment she was given the news from the angel Gabriel; Joseph later on in the aftermath of an angel coming to him in a dream. And they did so, admittedly, with only a glimmer of what saying “yes” would mean for them and the world.  They could have said no; as Madeline L’Engle has noted, Mary (and Joseph, too) “was free to do so.”  But they said Yes.  They were obedient; they listened.  And sometimes, writes L’Engle, and “when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.”

Well, the question for us tonight is if we’re listening for what God would say to us: and whether we’re ready to embrace all of what God has to give us in this gift of a Child.  On this night of nights, we joyfully refer to this Child as “Emmanuel;” meaning “God Is With Us.” It’s warm, and familiar to our ears; but the larger truth of that name is that in Jesus Christ, God is not going to keep us at arm’s length; what it means is that God coming to us that he might live beside us and with us, so that God might share in everything we know in this life; that he might experience every joy and every struggle that is ours. And when we say yes to that; when we open our arms to truly receive God in the guise of a child, then we also open ourselves to a relationship of abundant life and true love.

And who knows where that adventure will lead us?

For now, it is enough for us to pause in adoration of this wonderful baby born now amidst shepherds, magi and a few random farm animals.  We’ll sing songs with the angels, we’ll light candles, and then we’ll run from this place to tell good news of a “Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  And in and through it all, we’ll celebrate; and well we should!  But even as we do, beloved, the question remains:

What will you do about this child?  How will you receive him? Will you hold him in your arms?  Will you save and protect him?  Will you give him your heart?

I hope and pray that Jesus, our Emmanuel, might truly be born in each of our hearts this Christmas; for that will truly make every difference for our lives and for the world.

Merry Christmas, my dear friends; and thanks be to God!

Amen, and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Love, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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