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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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By His Cradle We Stand

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2019, based on Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 2:1-12)

‘Twas the day before the day before Christmas, and my wife Lisa and I were down at (our local grocery store) Market Basket stocking up on all the food and supplies we were going to need for the holiday; and as you can imagine that place, as one person aptly described it, was “a whole new level of busy!”   So busy, in fact, that at one point I actually found myself mired in an immovable grocery cart traffic jam right there between the dairy section and the deli counter!

For the most part, however, everybody was being pretty good-natured about it: there were a lot of “excuse me’s” and “so sorry’s” going around, and people were laughing about how we should each have been issued  carts with blinkers and “back-up beeps!”  Of course, there were those who were clearly stressed with the whole situation as they struggled to make their way through this morass of shoppers no matter what; and I saw one exhausted young mother who was trying in vain to verbally ride herd on five active children!  Not only that, overhead and all around there’s the unmistakable sounds of “Santa Baby, put a sable under the tree for me…” occasionally interrupted by the store manager announcing a “Christmas Special” at the front of the store!

So unable to move for the moment, I’m standing there and taking it all in, realizing that this is truly the “holiday rush” in all its glory and utter chaos; everyone lost in their own Christmas busy-ness, trying to get to their Yuletide celebrations on time and in one piece!

And that’s when I heard it.

Somewhere in all that noise and confusion, as clear as a Christmas bell, I heard the sound of a very young child… singing.

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday, dear…”

She’s singing with joy, singing in a way like kids do, like nobody’s listening but that doesn’t matter!  Immediately I wanted to see where that song was coming from, but the moment was fleeting and by the time I even looked up the song had faded away and the child – whoever she was (!) – was gone.  I didn’t even get to hear who the song was being sung for (!) – it was just a tiny little “Happy Birthday” song bursting forth amidst all the noise.

And it occurred to me in that moment that I was in the midst of a parable… and that that crowded grocery store could just as well have been… Bethlehem.

Because on another night long, long ago, in that little backwater town the streets were filled to overflowing with visitors – government mandated visitors, actually – who’d come there to be “registered” for purposes of taxation.  Emperor Augustus had actually decreed that everyone should return to their hometowns for this registration, so every home was filled with relatives coming home and every vacancy at every “inn” in town was filled and then some.  And in keeping with the Jewish tradition of great hospitality, there were lots of family reunions and banquet celebrations going on all over Bethlehem with all the laughter and conversation and the occasional moments of drama that go along with such gatherings!  And this to say nothing of the presence of those Roman “registrars” who’d also come to town… in short, this town that was often considered to be far off the beaten path and “least among the rulers of Judah” had never seen a night as noisy, as busy or as utterly chaotic as this!

It was so busy, in fact, that hardly anyone who was there in the city that night even noticed that out behind one of the inns of Bethlehem – where there’d been “no place” for a young weary couple who had just arrived and she who was expecting a child– out behind this crowded inn, in a dark and damp stable surrounded by the likes of sheep and cows and donkeys (!), the time came for her baby to be born, and Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger,” an infant’s cradle fashioned out of what just a few moments before had been the animals’ feeding trough.

Amazing to think of it: that in amidst all of everything else that was happening that night in this “little town of Bethlehem,” a baby was born!  But not just any baby, mind you:  this baby was “a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord;” a tiny child who represented “good news of great joy for all the people” for this was the long awaited and long-expected Messiah of God’s people Israel.

This is the one whom the prophet Isaiah proclaimed would be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” the one on whose shoulders all authority shall rest and grow continually, the one who shall rule over a kingdom of endless peace, upheld with justice and righteousness “from this time onward and forevermore.”  This is the one that the angel Gabriel told Mary would be called the “Son of the Most High;” the child who is, as the angel described him to Joseph, Emmanuel, which means “God Is With Us.”  This is the “Word made flesh [that has] lived among us,” (John 1:14) what Paul described to the Hebrews as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)  He is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15); He is the light of the world that enlightens all humanity; He is the bright new morning star; He is love Divine and love incarnate; He is the Messiah; the Christ of Christmas, and the Conqueror of death; He is the way and the truth and the life…

and …he’s a baby (!); this tiny helpless infant who’s just been born in a manger, of all places.

Amazing to think of it:  that on that busy night in Bethlehem, a baby – this divine child who would be named Jesus – was born… and yet, despite the fact there was a bright star shining overhead and, not far away from there, a multitude of the heavenly host was praising God and singing songs of peace on earth and good will amongst all people…

…even then (!), hardly anyone even noticed.

Oh, there were a few: the shepherds, for instance, the ones who had experienced something holy and heavenly that night, and were compelled to go and look for the sign of which they’d been told, and to see this newborn Messiah for themselves.  There were the “wise men from the East” who were seeking “the child who has been born king of the Jews” and looked to the stars to guide them to the place of his birth.  And surely there were others: perhaps the innkeeper, or the guests at the inn who had boarded their animals in the stable, or maybe the faithful few in the neighborhood who’d heard of this birth and were moved by some Spirit to check it out.

Maybe… but in truth, there weren’t many… at least at first.

Because we also know that in amidst everything else happening that night, there was something else… something that was silent and holy and divine… something almost like a song piercing through the world’s confusion, its darkness and its sin as clearly as love itself… as God himself…

…God in the guise of a child!

And this is why we’re here tonight, why in the middle of all of our celebrations we’ve come away so to visit this little manger to see what has happened and to behold this wonderful, holy child.  In the words of the hymn from which we’ve been drawing some inspiration in this season, “O Holy Night,” “Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming, with glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.”

There’s so much going on all around us right now: in our own homes, with our families coming together for the holiday, among our friends and neighbors, most certainly in the world around us.  In ways personal, professional, political and ever perplexing, the world keeps on spinning and we stay busy in every sense of the word.  But tonight… on this night divine, something wonderful is happening, and we need not only to take notice but also to rejoice…

…because God has come to us and abides with us.  God is WITH us… for he is Jesus, our Emmanuel…

…and tonight, by his cradle we stand in love and adoration.

Glory to God in the highest!

And Merry Christmas, dear friends.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2019 in Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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The Song That Never Ends

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2018, based on Luke 2:8-20)

It is most decidedly not a Christmas song; and in fact, I’d suspect that the only way you might even know it is if you had little children in your life round about the early 1990’s.  As performed by puppeteer Shari Lewis and “Lamb Chop,” it went a little something like this:

“This is the song that never ends,
Yes, it goes on and on my friend.
Some people started singing it,
Not knowing what it was,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
This is the song that never ends….”

You get the idea; this truly is a song that once begun, goes on and on and on… suffice to say it’s a melody tailor-made for long car rides and antsy kids (if not for the parents or grandparents on board who are at the end of their last frayed nerve!).  Indeed, it’s one of those songs that’s silly and fun and all manner of irritating, all at the same time!  And the truth of it is, and here’s the reason I risked putting that tune into your heads tonight, this is pretty much how some people feel about Christmas music!  Even I must confess that as much as I absolutely love the music of this season, nonetheless there are some songs in the holiday canon that just seem to be played on an endless loop! I mean, especially given all the discussion this year, how many versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Santa Baby” can there actually be?  It’s no wonder that there are those out there who are very ready to be done with these songs for another year (not me, not yet…. I’m just sayin’!).

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m aware that even some of the sacred carols of Christmas – the beautiful songs that we’re singing here tonight – sometimes risk having that same effect on people; but I dare say for a different reason than sheer repetition.  After all, Christmas carols by their very nature are non-traditional and even a bit irregular, both musically and lyrically.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that (!); as the late Halford Luccock once put it, some of the best hymns are the ones that are labeled “irregular,” especially at Christmas.  “Irregular?” he wrote.  “I should say so! The whole thing was highly irregular!  A baby in a barn.  What could be more irregular than that?  Shockingly irregular!”  But then again, that’s the way of God, isn’t it; if there’s no room in inn, “God will find a barn or other place in which God’s new word can be born.”

The truth is, friends, is that ours is an irregular God who is utterly determined to come to us and abide with us, even in the guise of a tiny, helpless infant born in a stable surrounded by farm animals; and that is the reason that we sing… again and again, and on and on!

In our worship yesterday we talked a little bit about the angels’ glorious song of peace and joy on that first Christmas night, and also about the shepherds “living out in the fields” who were the ones blessed to hear it.  It was, in the words of the old hymn, “music of the spheres,” a heavenly song sung by a heavenly host, a song as bright and as bold as the star that shone overhead.  It was truly “good news of great joy for all the people… a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord,” and it was, to say the very least, a singular, revelatory moment for the shepherds just as it was for all of creation; it was in every describable way, a song for the ages.

That said, however, I wonder how it was for those shepherds “after the angels had left them and gone into heaven,” and after the song was done and all that was left was the enveloping quiet of that holy night, a calm only broken by the occasional bleat of the sheep who’d been sleeping nearby.  We know, of course, that their first instinct was to go immediately to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place,” but what I want to know is if as the shepherds went “with haste,” as Luke puts it, were they singing?   That incredible song just sung by a literal choir of angels; was that still going round and round in their heads?  Was the song on their lips, were they trying to emulate the melodies and harmonies as they rushed into town, or could they have been simply whistling as they went?

Well, Luke doesn’t say exactly; we’re only told that just as they’d been told they could, the shepherds did find the manger and Mary, Joseph and the child within, and that when they did see this new, holy family, the shepherds were compelled to tell Mary and Joseph about everything that they’d seen and heard earlier that night.  And don’t know about you, beloved, but I have to believe that as they did, those shepherds sang!  And you know they sang with joy, they sang with enthusiasm, they sang loudly and maybe even a bit off key (!); the kind singing you do when you’re so filled up that you don’t even care how it sounds to those around you!

And the thing was, those shepherds were just getting started!  Even as they left the manger, even as they knew they needed to get back to the fields and the business of tending the sheep, all the while they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”  And why not? The child was born, the Messiah had come and now the world and their very lives had changed forever!  This song, the song the angels sang, the song that was forever on their lips and in their hearts, this song of God’s redeeming love in Jesus who is called Emmanuel… this was, and is, the song that never ends!

And even now, over 2,000 years later, we still sing – again and again, and on and on – in joyful praising of the God who loves us so much that he will not rest until each and all of us have been embraced and so caught up in his tremendous and infinite love that we have no other choice than to sing!

Beloved, if I have but one prayer for you on this holy night, it would be that you’re singing; really singing, not just tonight in the beauty of candlelight and in the fellowship of kindred hearts together on Christmas Eve, but always… after Christmas Day, into the new year and beyond… that you will be so moved by the gift of this holy child and in him the presence of the living God that you will be singing with joy and faith and purpose that divine song of peace and love that never, ever ends.

The late Ann Weems once asked if “there are still those who long to hear an angel’s song and touch a star?  To kneel beside some other shepherd in the hope of catching a glimpse of eternity in a baby’s smile?  Are there still those who sing ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’? If there are,” Weems prayed, “then O Lord, keep ablaze their flickering candle in the darkness of this world!”

Well, here on Mountain Road in Concord, the candles are flickering and the light of the Christ Candle is about to be shared among us in this beautiful and sacred space, cutting through the darkness of this night and of the world that surrounds us.  May this light truly fill us with all HOPE in believing; may it awaken us to the PEACE that only Christ can bring; may it fill us with JOY and make us aware of divine and infinite LOVE…

…and may it inspire us, today and always, to SING!

Merry Christmas, my dear friends, thanks be God, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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