Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Evangelism 2010

December 25, 2010
Luke 2:1-20

This is the very same passage from Luke that I used for my sermon last Christmas Eve at St. Martin’s in Pahrump. When I first realized that I would be preaching on this same piece if scripture once again, I looked back with interest at my thoughts of last year. I was amazed at how differently I perceived the passage this year

Last year my sermon focused on how lucky we are to have Christ in our lives, and what a waste of time it is to feel sorry for ourselves when we don’t get the gifts that we had hoped for.

This year, I am not even thinking about gifts.

This year, I am thinking of our many, many brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world who are suffering, oppressed, and exposed to illness and brutality.

I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who this year have become financially destitute, homeless, and who do not have much hope for a brighter future.

I am thinking of the many natural disasters that have occurred this year, and the toll that these events have taken on both our environment and our economy.

I am thinking, we need to try our very hardest to bring Luke’s birth story and all that it means to those who either have not yet heard it, or to those who need desperately to hear it again.

This year, I am thinking that we, who are lucky enough to remain, as yet, untouched by disaster, are called by Christ, more fervently than ever, to be his disciples – to seek and serve Christ in all people and to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

This year, in composing my sermon, I prayed that I could summon the creative juices that might, in some small way, take this birth story and breathe energy into Christ’s evangelism call to all of us here at Grace in the Desert. I prayed that I might compose a sermon that would help us all hear the angel of the Lord loud and clear when he says:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When I become passionate about something, I hear what I am trying to say musically in my head. So, I decided that, today, I would use verses from hymns that we sing each year at this time to highlight Luke’s story and to inspire us in our role as God’s messengers.

Hymn #101; verse 1

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

Mary and Joseph had travelled from Nazareth to Galilee to register for a census. The purpose of the census was to ensure that everyone was accounted for and taxed appropriately. Their journey was a long one – about 90 miles each way. Whether on foot or by donkey, it must have been a very difficult and unpleasant journey for Mary who was pregnant.

Once in Nazareth, exhausted and knowing that Mary might be about to deliver her child, the couple stopped at an inn seeking lodging. All the rooms were taken. Mary and Joseph were offered an alternative place to stay – the manger, a space normally reserved as a shelter for animals. It was in this very humble space that the birth of Christ took place.

The baby Jesus - God incarnate; Son of God; our Savior and our Redeemer - was born not in the comfort of a fancy palace or temple. His parents were given no special consideration. The innkeeper did not move an existing guest and give them a real room instead of a dirty animal shed. No grand and glorious welcome befitting a king here. No, Christ was born in the most humble of settings among the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable – among those whom he would serve, teach, and encourage to become his followers, his disciples. Ordinary people just like you and me.

Hymn #94, verses 1 & 2

While shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around.

“Fear not,” said he, for mighty dread has seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind.”

Shepherds were not rich. Shepherds were not educated. Shepherds had little, if any, social standing. Yet, God chose them to be the first to learn of Christ’s birth. God revealed himself and the birth of His Son to the most ordinary of men – not to kings or emperors.

Imagine these tired and dirty men out in a dark field, perhaps cold and hungry, minding their own business and tending their sheep when all of a sudden an angel appears before them – an angel in a cloud of glory! They were terrified!

But the angel said, “Fear not.” And then, miraculously, “The glory of the Lord shone around them.”

Somehow the shepherds understood the grace that had befallen them. They heard God. They listened intently and in awe as the angel said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Hymn #83, verse 1

O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him, born the King of Angels;
O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

The sheep were forgotten. The shepherds knew in their hearts that they had to see for themselves this miraculous “Thing that had taken place.” They dropped everything, including their livelihood – the sheep – and hurried off to Bethlehem.

These shepherds foreshadowed all those men and women who in the coming years would lay down their worldly goods and gifts to follow Christ – the fishermen, the tax collector, and all the saints who have given their lives to proclaim the Good News of Christ.

As Jesus said to the man who was asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Once we have seen the glory of the Lord, there is no hesitation, no concern for what others may think or what the consequences of our commitment to Christ might be - no hesitation at all - we simply love, or adore, him with all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our souls.

Hymn #88, verse 1

Sing, o sing, this blessed morn, unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given, God himself comes down from heaven.
Sing, O sing, this blessed morn, Jesus Christ today is born.

The shepherds were amazed at what they had been told, and what they saw when they finally arrived at the manger scene in Bethlehem. These very ordinary people served as witnesses to the Incarnation, just as other very ordinary people would later become witnesses to the resurrection.

Other than the angels, the shepherds were the first to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ birth. Not CNN or Fox News, not the New York Times, not Newsweek or Time Magazine – just ordinary folks like you and me, singing praises from door-to-door.

Today, it is very ordinary people like you and me who have, once again, witnessed the birth of Christ.

As we consider in awe, just as the shepherds did over 2000 years ago, the profundity of this miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ, let us open our hearts and our minds to the wondrous gift of God made man

Let us pray that we may be so blessed that our hearts and our minds, guided by the Light of Christ, will be used as his instruments in the healing of this troubled world.

Hymn #101; verse 3

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

We Are The Prophets of 2011

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins…When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took her as his wife...and he named him Jesus.” (Matt 1:20-21; 24-25)

During these final days of Advent, we are anxiously awaiting the birth of the baby Jesus. In our hearts and in our minds we hear the prophet Isaiah's words:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, 'which means 'God is with us.”
We also hear the refrain from the well-known hymn O come! O come! Emmanuel.

O come O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel. (TH #56)

O come! O come! Emmanuel. A plea for the predictions of the prophets to be realized. A plea for God to be with us. A plea for Jesus to be born. A plea for God to save us.

Throughout Advent, as we await the birth of Jesus, we are encouraged through prayer, meditation, discussion, and communal worship to prepare – to be ready for Jesus' coming anew into our lives.

We are also encouraged - sometimes in great detail – to refrain from falling into the commercialism of the season. For instance, how many times have you heard the phrase, “Christmas has lost its meaning – it just all about buy, buy, buy these days.”

We are encouraged to prepare, and we are instructed how not to prepare, but are we guided in what we are preparing for? Do we think seriously about what Christmas – the birth of Jesus - means for us, right here in Nevada, in the year 2010?

I don’t think we do.

Of course, we all think of Christmas as the time of Jesus' birth – his coming into the world to save us. However, I am not at all certain that we consider the fact that Jesus has already come. That Jesus' first coming – his actual birth - occurred over two thousand years ago.

During our Advent preparations, how often do we think about the fact that through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus so many years ago, we have already been given the grace of redemption? How often do we remember that the longed for Emmanuel has already come? The blessing of God's grace is already with us. God is with us - now.

These days, as we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we are not the ancient people of Israel awaiting the prophesy of Isaiah, or Hosea, or Joel to be fulfilled. We are not Joseph being told by the angel of the Lord to await a child who shall be named Jesus and who will save his people. We are not a bewildered young man acting on faith and obediently taking Mary for his wife.

Unlike Joseph in today's Gospel reading, we are not awaiting and preparing for the unknown.

Rather, this Advent season we are awaiting and preparing for the arrival of the known - the wonder of the gift of the Christ child.

This Christmas eve, we will, once again, witness the arrival of God incarnate - God made man – the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. This Christmas, we will, once again, begin our journey – a journey we know all too well - to Jerusalem as we follow the Son of God through his ministry.

Finally, next spring, we will, once again, in grief, stand by as our Savior is betrayed, tried, and crucified. Finally, on Easter morning, we will, once again, proclaim the glory of Christ's resurrection as we sing together:

“He is risen! He is risen!
Tell it out with joyful voice:
He has burst His three days' prison;
Let the whole wide earth rejoice:
Death is conquered, we are free,
Christ has won the victory.”

This Advent season our preparations should be centered not on waiting for the unknown - for the prophesy of Isaiah to be fulfilled. Rather, we should be centered on the known – the gift of Christ in our lives.

We should be considering our role as prophets – the Isaiahs of 2011 – as we, once again, receive the gift of Christ, and continue to spread the Good News that Christ is with us; death is conquered; we are free.

This coming year as we journey beside Jesus from his birth to his resurrection, it is we who have a responsibility to proclaim the message of redemption though our lives and through our words. Prophets do still exist – we are those prophets.

In today’s Gospel, Joseph is told to how to prepare for the birth of Mary's child by an angel. God sent the angel to prepare Joseph by instructing him to go ahead and take Mary as his wife, despite the fact that she was pregnant and no one knew by whom. And, God’s messenger instructed Joseph to name the child, Jesus.

Later in Luke's story, the angel will instruct Joseph to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod's wrath.

Finally, the angel will inform Joseph that Herod has died and he must return to Israel.

In all cases, Joseph obeyed the angel. Joseph was silently obedient. Joseph ensured the safe arrival of the Christ child; Joseph named him Jesus; Joseph kept him safe.

Joseph obeyed God's commands without question and without hesitation.

I believe that the same is expected of us. As we prepare, yet again, for the birth of the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve, the preparations that we must make are similar to those made by Joseph so many years ago. We must prepare ourselves to obey Christ's commands without question and without hesitation.

This Advent season, we hear not an angel of the Lord, but Jesus himself.

We remember him as Luke describes him: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51)

We hear him when he said to his followers:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)

We hear him as he spoke his final words to us:

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:17-20)

This Advent season we should be preparing to receive the gift of the Christ child
with joy and the commitment to set our face to Jerusalem as we take up our cross
and go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and remembering that Christ is with us