We come to kneel

I posted the Christmas Eve message on Jacob_Limping

jacob_limping

File:Guido Reni - São José.jpgThis is the message from our Christmas Eve service.  Links to the texts for the evening can be found at the blog post:Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

Every time I sit down to work on my Christmas Eve sermon I think of my daughter Megan who lives now in New York. Pretty much every year on Christmas Eve she sends me an irate text message about the sermon she has just heard while going to church with her husband’s family and asking me to send mine. I think, too, about my daughter Anna’s observation about the preaching she heard in another church that she described as three stories from Reader’s Digest and a “Yea God!”

I feel a lot of pressure on Christmas Eve to get this right. And while it’s probably true that as long as I don’t say something offensive, you would go…

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But Christ can see

File:Bonfeld - Evangelische Kirche - Kanzelwand und Weihnachtsbaum 2015 - 1.jpg

Christmas Eve

I tried to stand well away from the altar, tonight, as I said the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that surrounds the words of institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) for communion. Yesterday I was knocked down by a terrible cold and I didn’t want to touch the bread or get near to anyone lest I pass on my germs. So the assisting minister held the bread aloft at the proper moment, then the wine, then broke them for the distribution and served the bread for me.

I missed this opportunity to serve the community the gifts – or to share the peace before we come to the table – or to shake their hand and greet them after the service. I have been here 15 years, now, and there are people who come faithfully at Christmas. There are young people who have grown up and moved away but are back for the holiday. There are grandchildren and visiting aunts and uncles and siblings I have met through the years. It is hard to stand apart and wave at them from a distance after the service.

There is something wonderful about the power of this night to gather people together. Something warm and enduring about the ties that stretch over time. Something mystical about the power of this story of the child of Bethlehem and the beauty of a darkened room with the Christmas trees shining and every hand holding high a lighted candle as we sing of a silent and holy night. It speaks of peace, a peace that we remember, a peace we can imagine, a peace for which we hope.

It is our answer to the torchlight march last August in Charlottesville. It is our prayer for a world where too much is vile and violent. It is our yearning for what the world could be.

And it is our confession of what the world shall be. The babe of Bethlehem, the man from Nazareth, the healer and teacher, the embodiment of mercy and life, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the world, the crucified one is risen and comes to breathe his spirit upon us. He comes to touch us with grace and life. He comes to heal and renew the world. He comes to gather us to one table. He comes to reconcile heaven and earth.

Not everyone who comes to sing “Silent Night” can see all the way to Good Friday and Easter, to Pentecost and the New Jerusalem. But Christ can see. And the Spirit leads. And the song is begun.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABonfeld_-_Evangelische_Kirche_-_Kanzelwand_und_Weihnachtsbaum_2015_-_1.jpg By Roman Eisele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Great mercies for a world in need of mercy

File:Lacura2.JPGWatching for the Feast of the Nativity 2017

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Light for our darkness will echo through our service on Christmas Eve. We will hear the great prophetic word of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and be reminded of the promise that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

We will hear also from Isaiah that “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” a new king from the line of David. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The peace of his reign that will find the lion eating straw like the ox and all the earth will be filled with “the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Of course, the central story of the night is the remarkable birth during the imperial reign of the victorious Octavian – Caesar Augustus who was acclaimed as son of a god (son of the divine Julius Caesar) and savior of the world. Only this birth does not happen in Rome, but in a peasant home in Judea.

Two kingdoms clash – not a game of thrones like Octavian’s Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, but two profoundly different claims upon the world: one a rule of might, the other of grace. Augustus will claim all things for himself – and Jesus will give himself for all. The “census” was a listing of all properties when Rome took over a region so Caesar could claim what he wished. It led to riots and brutal repression under Quirinius. But in a manger in Bethlehem lies a true prince of peace, a true light for our darkness.

On Christmas Day we will hear John declare that the divine word that called the world into being“became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” We will hear the prophet speak of God’s word that does not return empty but “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And the author of Hebrews will confirm that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Light for our darkness. Peace for our world. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonder of “God with us”. Rich and abundant themes. Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– The prophet heralds a coming king who shall bring perfect peace to the world.”

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-3a
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALacura2.JPG By Lacura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

O Come

File:Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci - Nativity, in an initial P - Google Art Project.jpg

Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore.

A solo voice sang that verse in the darkened sanctuary as she followed behind the processional cross as it entered last night. With the second verse another voice joined as the manger with the infant Jesus was carried in. Two more voices joined as the Bible came up the aisle. Then the whole choir was singing as they came and stood with the musicians on the platform behind the altar. With the final verse the lights came on and the whole congregation stood to sing:

Christ, to thee, with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unwearied praises be:
honor, glory, and dominion,
and eternal victory
evermore and evermore! Amen

As the music faded, came these words from the altar:

You made the world a garden, O God,
And formed our first parents from the dust of the earth and the breath of your mouth.
You made the world a garden, O God,
And walked with us in the cool of the evening.
You made the world a garden, O God,
And provided every good thing to your children.

But they turned from you,
And weeds grew,
And lions roared,
And tears fell.
Brother rose against brother,
And the riches of the earth were pounded into weapons.
Empires marched,
And sorrow followed in their train.

You made the world a garden, O God,
But it lies wounded.
We lie wounded.
Your children are scattered
and your people divided.

But on this night the radiance of heaven shines forth.
Stars blaze. Angels sing.
And you bid us and all creation to come and dwell in your light and life.

With that the organ swelled and we all began to sing: “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

The liturgy of Christmas Eve is unlike any other in the year. Easter has its sugar-fueled, spring-fed energy. Pentecost has the fun of many languages. The Blessing of the Animals is out on the lawn with pets at our side. But Christmas Eve is a special mix of family reunions, candlelight, beautiful music and joy, peace and hope.

Some years the wounds of the world are more profoundly in our minds. But in every year the invitation still comes to gather for a moment of peace, captured so perfectly when every hand holds a candle and, in a church darkened but for the Christmas trees, we sing “Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright…”

Such a world is our yearning. And it is God’s promise.

The message from Christmas Eve is posted at Light for our darkness

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADon_Silvestro_dei_Gherarducci_-_Nativity%2C_in_an_initial_P_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For all the boots

File:Boots, Boots, To Go Up and Down in Africa- the Salvage and Repair of Army Boots, Somerset, England, 1943 D13198.jpg

Isaiah 9:2-7

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

I saw a news item last year about people making jewelry out of the shell casings left behind from the Vietnam war. That’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but it is on the same track.

My nephew wants to be a marine. I respect him. I respect him a great deal. I think I understand why such a life appeals to him. He wants to be a guardian of the peace. But I can’t shake the shadows of war. It’s been haunting me since the nightly news showed images and gave body counts each evening from Vietnam. It haunts me since reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. It haunts me since reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It haunts me since seeing footage of the Nazi concentration camps. It haunts me since my father’s war stories stopped being adventure stories. It was an adventure for him as a young man. It was a long ways from shoveling sugar beets on a Colorado farm. It involved the thrill of flying when you navigated by following roads rather than computer readouts. But I recognize that my father ttold it as an adventure story because that helps hide the reality of the friends he lost and the bombs he dropped.

We spend more than 1.6 billion dollars a day in this country for war and the preparations for war. We call it defense, because that, too, hides some of the horror. We unfurl giant flags in patriotic displays at football games and cheer our soldiers when they come home to greet unsuspecting family because that, too, hides some of the horror. We honor their service, rightly, but old soldiers and authors and moviemakers keep reminding us that the underbelly of such adventure is blood and grief. And so we watch Aleppo and the Russians drooping bombs on hospitals and children covered in dust and blood pulled from the wreckage. A city that was great a thousand years before Abraham left Haran appears now as rubble.

When we read Isaiah on Christmas Eve it is pure promise, sweet and familiar, shadowed not by weeping mothers but Christmas trees and candlelight. But the words were first spoken to weeping mothers.

The music of Haydn rings in our ears as we hear these words. But this is not a noble aspiration for a sane and safe world; it is a promise. A promise that one shall come in whom is perfect peace. Peace will not come by bombing the heck out of our enemies, but by kneeling before the holy infant, by kneeling in allegiance to the one who is not only the child of Bethlehem but the teacher from Nazareth who chose not to call on the heavenly armies, but stretched wide his arms upon the cross.

I don’t know how we get there, given the warring heart of humanity. But that is why the promise stands forth with such power.

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABoots%2C_Boots%2C_To_Go_Up_and_Down_in_Africa-_the_Salvage_and_Repair_of_Army_Boots%2C_Somerset%2C_England%2C_1943_D13198.jpg By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It will all be good

File:Martin Schongauer 002.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 25, 2016

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. It was because of such an accident of the calendar that many years ago my parish first created its Christmas Day service. The service was so nice we decided to continue the practice. I know it goes against the cultural tide, but we found it to be wonderful.

It’s not a big service. We gather early in the entryway with hot cider and cookies. We begin at the sanctuary doors with the Christmas proclamation and enter together following the cross and Bible. I don’t preach a sermon, but look for a children’s book to use as the message of the day. The service feels more like a family devotion than the big production of Christmas Eve. It meets a need for those whose big family celebrations are on Christmas Eve (and wouldn’t include worship). And since we are the only church around with a Christmas Day service, we get an interesting assortment of visitors.

And for my own family, for the girls and me this service never seemed like an intrusion into our Christmas. Because of the reading of a children’s story I wasn’t stressed about a sermon, and so our Christmas morning was juice and coffee bread as we opened stockings and started on presents. When it was time, we went to church for the cider and cookies and the worship service. Then it was home again for the remaining presents and the preparations for Christmas dinner. It seemed right and natural to put worship in the middle of Christmas morning. We sang the carols and listened to the scriptures and shared the bread and lingered again over the cider. It anchored all that we did in “the true meaning of Christmas.”

So we will have the big, high-energy service on Christmas Eve with choirs and special musicians and the excitement that a full house and lots of children brings – ending with the traditional passing of the light and singing Silent Night by candlelight. But then there will be that simple, pleasant, morning service filled with kindness, quiet and wonder.

And it will all be good.

The Prayer for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
–We were slaves to our passions but have been freed in Christ by his mercy.

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with God’s word in whom all things are created.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMartin_Schongauer_002.jpg Martin Schongauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The end of stomping

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1216-524, Paris, Wachablösung.jpgThursday

Isaiah 9:2-7

File:CaligaSeptimiusSeverusBogen2.jpg5All the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The Tanach translation of this passage begins:

Truly, all the boots put on to stamp with
And all the garments donned in infamy
Have been fed to the flames,

I love the way it subtly shifts the focus from the destruction of military gear to an end of the human propensity to stomp one another.

I find it ironic that on the night of peace that brought even the German and British armies to a temporary truce during World War I, CBS is advertising a football game as if it were some great contribution to your celebration of the holiday (remember ‘holiday’ means ‘holy day’).

The world continues to spin on its axis, the planet races around the sun, and the sun races around the galactic center – and even the galaxy itself is racing, someday to collide with its neighbor. Babies will be born (my mother is a Christmas baby and my daughter, Christmas eve). First responders will be on duty. Nurses will tend patients. And most of life will continue.

But in a world where violence is widespread and ritually enacted in combat sports, including football, some of us will gather to celebrate the child of peace and to join the angels’ song announcing “Peace on earth.”

The Christmas Eve service may bring a moment’s peace, but its true importance is in pointing towards peace, pointing towards the harmony that should be but is so seldom, pointing towards the peace that is far more than an end to the gunfire but the sharing of a table. We shouldn’t have to be reminded that peace is God’s purpose in the world, but it seems we do.

I watch football, but I am aware that it is ritual combat. Its underlying metaphor is that life is about conquest and victory. Tonight, in churches across the world, we will be reminded that life is about the ties that bind us to one another, to the creation, and to Him who is the heart of the universe. The Christ child comes to restore those ties.

 

Images:
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-1216-524 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Rabax63 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Greeted with a kiss

File:The importance of breastfeeding from birth (8816843284).jpg

And she laid him in a manger

Wednesday

Luke 2:1-20

20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I don’t know what people say as they leave worship on Christmas Eve. Probably, hopefully, that it was a nice service. Probably, hopefully, that they liked the music. Who doesn’t enjoy the change to sing Silent Night by candlelight? Maybe there is a sense of community, or perhaps nostalgia – or, possibly, just eagerness to get home to dinner or to presents.

I wish they went home “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,” – meaning not the worship service, but the news that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

That’s the stunning news. God’s anointed has come. The one who will deliver us and reign in righteousness is born. And not just born into the world but he lies in a manger! And the news is given to us, mere shepherds!

We should disabuse ourselves of any romantic notion of the shepherds. And maybe we can oversell how low on the social totem pole they stood – but they were clearly nowhere near the top. The Christ is born among the many, not the few. And he is proclaimed to the many, not the few. He is born among and proclaimed to those who lack status in the eyes of the world. Their twitter feed is followed by 6 not 6 million.

The Messiah is announced to those who tend the gardens and clean the homes and care for the sick. The Messiah is born among Uber drivers trying to make ends meet, and greeters at Walmart hoping to stretch their limited retirement income. The Messiah is born among those working the night shift pretty much anywhere. The Christ is born among the truckers on the road, away from family. Perhaps that’s the image we should ponder: Christ born at a truck stop and laid in a packing crate.

But we cannot work this image too strongly. We want to be sure that we don’t put the baby Jesus out there among “them”; he is born among us. In our homes with their secret sorrows and joys. In our homes with their struggles and successes. In our homes with our stresses and fears. In our homes with our sins and mercies.

Christ is born here, with us, where he is unexpected. To us the angels’ sing. We are the ones invited to see. We are the ones who should go home rejoicing. For this night the world is changed. Heaven has bent to earth and greeted it with a kiss.  Heaven has bent to us and greeted us with a kiss.

 

Image: By DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons