Choosing to be in the story: Homily for Christmas Eve, 2016

One of the things I talk about a lot in sermons this time of year is Christmas movies and specials. And my absolute favorite is a Charlie Brown Christmas. I love Snoopy decorating his dog house, and Charlie Brown picking out the scrawny little tree. I even love the different dances they all do when Schroeder plays his piano.

I’ve probably watched it every year of my life, and so it’s just not Christmas to me until Charlie Brown shouts “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And then Linus takes center stage, the lights go low, and he recites the Christmas story.

When Linus finishes he says very simply, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

And the truth is that Linus preaches a better sermon than most preachers. His simple retelling reminds Charlie Brown why we do all of this in the first place. And, every year, if we have ears to hear, it reminds us too.

Some might wonder why we come here each Christmas eve. The event we’re celebrating happened about 2,000 years ago. The baby whose birth we celebrate has not actually been a baby for a long, long time. And yet every year we gather and hear the same story, and light the same candles, and sing the same songs.

I think part of the reason is that, like Charlie Brown needs Linus, we need the reminder too.

That can feel especially true when the light in the world seems to be so dim. For so many this year has not been what they hoped. The world seems, in some big ways, broken. Cities like Aleppo cry out for peace. Communities struggle with addiction and isolation. Our very country feels for many like a harder and more unkind place.

I’ve heard more than a few people say that they are ready for 2016 to be over.

And yet, before we can get to New Year’s Eve, we have to go through Christmas. And that is good news. Because for these near 2,000 years, no matter what the year has brought, good or bad, this yearly reminder of God’s love has come in the literal darkest of days.

The real meaning of Christmas, the one that Linus proclaimed to Charlie Brown, is indeed the birth of this child. And the amazing part is that we believe that by Christ’s birth God chose to not just be the creator of the world, but to be a part of this world in a new way. We believe that God became one of us.

In other words, Christmas is about God loving us so much that God chooses to participate in this world. Christmas is about us not being alone anymore, no matter what else is happening.

That’s the first part of the Christmas story, one that was written down in this book centuries ago. But it’s not the end of the Christmas story. Not by a long shot.

You see, if Christmas is about God’s participation in this world, then it’s also about our own participation in what God is doing now.

The story we read tells us that. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men. They all said “yes” to being a part of this story.

And now each of us has the choice of whether or not we want to be a part of the Christmas story. Because each year we close another chapter of this story that we are writing with God. And on Christmas Eve, we get to choose to start writing a new one. We get to choose to participate.

In a real way, that’s what all these candles that we are about to light are all about. At the beginning of the service we lit the Christ candle up here, proclaiming Christ’s birth, proclaiming God’s participation with us. And as we end the service we will spread the light from that candle to one another. And as we hold it up, we will proclaim that we are willing to be a part of the Christmas story this year. Not just tonight. Not just tomorrow. But everyday.

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

One of the last scenes in Charlie Brown’s Christmas comes when the whole gang gathers around the sad, little Christmas tree he has picked out. And, together, they string the lights, and hang the ornaments, and wrap it in the warmth of Linus’ blanket. And when they do, it is transformed, and it is beautiful.

That’s the power of community. The light each of us holds tonight may not seem like much on its own. But taken together, it is brilliant. And just like Charlie Brown’s tree was transformed by the participation of many, this world can be changed and be made beautiful too. And the more of us who decide to be a part of that work, the more of us who choose to participate in what God is doing in this world, the more likely and quickly that change will be.

Scripture tells us that the light shines in darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. And that is true. But tonight, at the end of the service, you will blow out your candle and step back into the world. So when you do, you will make an important choice. Will you let that light die out? Or will you instead take it into your heart, and carry it with you everywhere that you go

If you do that, then you will have given this world the greatest gift that you ever could. And you will have joined this Christmas story that God began for us all these years ago. And, together, our light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. And it will indeed be a Merry Christmas. Amen?

Carrying the Light: A Homily for Christmas 2015

Each December, when people start asking me about the different Christmas Eve services we have here, I get one question more than any others: “But which one has the candles?”

We love fire on Christmas Eve. For a lot of us it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until we light our candles, and raise them up as we sing “Silent Night”.

That makes sense. On Christmas Eve we gather to tell a story that’s been told for about two thousand years now. Through the centuries Christians have told it in words. They’ve told it in song. But, from the very beginning, they’ve also told it in light.

Light is a huge part of the Christmas story. There’s the light of the angels that floods the shepherds’ fields. There’s the light of the star that brings the Wise Men to Bethlehem. And there’s the Gospel of John tells us that, “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light, the one we gather around tonight, is the Light of Christ. The baby whose birth we are celebrating would grow to be the very essence of hope, peace, joy, and love.

So while candles are always a nice touch, we can never forget the fact that on Christmas Eve they symbolize something so much bigger than just flame itself. They proclaim that the Light of Christ has once again come into this world.

That’s because Christmas is about more than something that happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It’s about God’s love that still somehow chooses to come into a broken world. It’s that love that still compels us all to gather here each December 24th, to light these candles.

And I think we do this in part, because we know at some level that light changes everything. It can brighten the longest nights, and banish the most bitter cold. It can make new pathways clear, and it can show us that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark.

But all of those things can only happen if that light is first allowed to shine.

Right after I first moved here a couple of years ago, I was asked to preach at a nighttime worship service out on Star Island. And if you’ve never been to Star Island, the first thing you need to know is that you can only get there by boat. It’s out in the middle of the ocean, about seven miles off the coast.

There is this old stone chapel on the island, one that gets very cold and dark at night. And the night I was preaching I was told everyone would walk up to the chapel together. But I decided I should go up early to look over my sermon first. And so, I found myself navigating up this rocky path in the dark, and walking into an empty building.
And that’s when I discovered that there is no electricity in the chapel. No light switch. No lights, in fact. Just pitch black darkness.

And, sitting there, with a sermon I could not read, I wondered why no one had thought to tell me about this.

But that’s when the most amazing thing happened. I looked down the rocky path I’d just stumbled up, and I saw a line of people walking. Each one was holding a lantern with a lit candle in it. And as they walked into the chapel, one by one they hung their lantern up on hooks set high in the walls.

IMG_6541

Chapel Lanterns at Star Island.

By the time everyone was there, the chapel absolutely glowed with light. And the light transformed everything.

What’s true of lanterns is so much more true of the light of Christ. It lights us up in ways that nothing else can, and it changes us. But more importantly, it has the potential to light and to change the whole world. Because of that, it’s important to remember that it was never something for us to keep just for ourselves.

And so, at Christmas, we get to make a decision. Are we going to, as the old song goes, hide our light under a basket? Or are we going to let it shine?

To put it another way, tonight will you just hear the Christmas story? Or will you decide that this year you are going to become a part of it?

Later in the service we will turn down all the lights, and begin to spread the flame from the Christ candle. And when your candle is lit, you’ll be able to see what is right there in your pew. And that will be enough…for you.

But when we begin to sing Silent Night, and we stand up and raise our candles, something will change. Suddenly the flame of your candle will join that of your neighbor’s. And together, our candles will light this entire sanctuary. That’s because when we share our light with the world, and with one another, everything looks different.

This is the moment many of us love best on Christmas Eve. It’s beautiful. But it’s also fleeting. It only lasts a few verses. But the good news is that when we blow our candles out, that feeling doesn’t have to end.

Christmas is not just about seeing the light of Christ. It’s about picking up your light and letting that light live within you. And it’s about lifting it up and shining it for all the world.

The thing about being a follower of Christ is that even when we blow our candles out, people should still be able to see Christ’s light burning within us. Not just once a year, but every day. And in the darkest of times and places, they should be able to see that light burning all the more clearly.

That’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about refusing to give into the hardness and anger and fear of the world. It’s about choosing instead to be a light of compassion, a light of peace, and a light of love. And it’s about letting Christ’s light shine in you, so that the lives of others may be lit by it.

And so, may your candle burn brightly tonight. But may it burn even more brightly tomorrow, and then every single day after. And this Christmas may the light of Christ once again bless us and bless this world. Amen.

The Light: Homily for Christmas Eve 2014

John 1:1-5

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10885152_10100748574687168_7267670351363878850_nThere’s a joke that you can tell how long a minister is going to preach by what is written in the bulletin. If you look down and see “sermon” printed there, you know it’s going to be a while. But sometimes you see the word“homily”. I joke that homily is Latin for “really short sermon”, and it means I won’t be talking long.

You all just checked your bulletins, didn’t you…don’t worry, it’s okay. If you didn’t, it says “homily”. I’m not going to preach long this evening because my sense is that you already know this story, or else you probably wouldn’t be here. And usually the role of the preacher is to retell the story in some way and make it relevant to your life today, but I’m going to guess that more than perhaps any other story in the Bible, we all know how this one goes.

There’s Mary, and the angel, and the most unexpected of births. There’s the trip to Bethlehem, and no room in the inn. And there’s the stable, and the manger that stands in for the crib. And finally, the shepherds, who come because the one they have been waiting for has finally been born.

We know this story. Even Linus tells it at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, and I know I can’t beat Linus when it comes to telling this story.

And so, I’m not going to tell you the Christmas story of what happened two thousand years ago tonight. I’m not going to tell it to you because I’m going to ask you to tell it instead. And I’m going to ask you to tell it not just tonight, but tomorrow, and through all twelve days of Christmas, and then every day from then on until we arrive here again at the manger next Christmas Eve.

But first, we just heard five different lessons from Scripture. The first four were from that familiar Christmas story that we all know. But the fifth was from the Gospel of John, and it’s a passage that is traditionally read on Christmas eve. And at first it might even seem a little out of place with the rest of the story. But listen to it again:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light that they’re talking about there is more than just a candle or a bulb or even a star. That light is Jesus Christ, the light that comes to shine in the darkness. And as wonderful as the story of the nativity is, with the shepherds and angels and manger, that light is the truly good news of Christmas.

And it’s good news not just for 2000 years ago, but for today. Because the reality is that this is a world that is often not what it should be. There is too much war. Too much poverty. Too much injustice. And too much pain. And there is too little hope. Too little peace. Too little joy. And too little love.

You and I, we know what it is like to live with the reality of darkness. Because we are human. And yet, because of Christmas, because of the very choice God made to send hope into this world in the form of a newborn baby, we also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Christmas is about the light overcoming the darkness. It’s about a birth 2000 years ago, but it’s about so much more than that. Because Christmas isn’t just about what happened back then. It’s also about the ways God is still choosing to come into our world. And, perhaps most amazing of all, it’s about us too.

And that’s because Christmas is a story of choices, good and bad. It’s Mary saying “my soul magnifies the Lord” when the angel tells her she is pregnant. But it’s also the innkeeper shutting the door on Mary and Joseph, and saying that there’s no room in the inn.

And it’s about our choices too. Because we each have a choice about how we are going to respond to the story of Christmas. We can leave here tonight, our hearts unchanged, and we can forget this story until next Christmas eve.

Or, we can make another choice. We can choose to be a part of the Christmas story. And we can choose to live as reflections of this light that has been sent to shine in the darkness.

My hope is that you will choose the latter. And my hope is that you will choose to tell the story of Christmas with your lives, not just tonight, but long after the tree is taken down, and the presents are opened.

It’s no coincidence that on Christmas eve we symbolize our joy and hope by lighting candles. We are, after all, celebrating the light of the world. And so in just a few minutes we are going to be lighting our Christmas candles by passing the flame of the Christ Candle that we lit tonight. And as that light spreads throughout the sanctuary, we will end with Silent Night, and as we sing the last verse we will lift our candles into the air.

And so tonight, when you lift up your small part of the light of Christ, let it be more than just going through the motions. This year, as you lift your light, make a promise to yourself that you will lift that light all year long, and that you will be a part of the Christmas story. And make a promise to the world that you will use your life to spread a light that will shine with joy and hope and love and peace in the places that need it the most.

If you do that, then you will truly understand the meaning of Christmas. And the light of Christ will shine just a little brighter in this world because of you. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 24 – Christmas Eve

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nToday at the family service I asked all the children who were here to come up for the children’s sermon before this homily. And standing here on the chancel, I asked them to help me remember the Christmas story.

And they stood here, fresh from their performances as angels with homemade wings and shepherds in bathrobes, and they told us the Christmas story. They told us about how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, and they looked for a place to stay, but there was no room in the inn. And they told us about how that baby was born in a manger instead, and how the angels and the shepherds came to glorify that child. All of that happened 2,000 years ago, but they can tell that story by heart, just as well as any Christmas eve preacher ever could.

They can tell that story, because someone told that story to them. And we can tell that story, because someone told that story to us. And someone told us that story, because someone, somewhere told it to them. It is a story that, though written down in this holy book, has its real power from being passed from person to person, generation after generation, Christmas after Christmas.

Where did you hear the story first? Was it at church? Was it from a parent or grandparents? Was it from Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas? Wherever it was, you learned that story. And there’s something about that story that has brought you here tonight, to hear it, to tell it, to sing it, and to celebrate it once again.

This December I’ve been thinking about the Christmas story a lot. I’ve been trying to remember how I first learned the story, and, really, I don’t know. My guess is that it wasn’t just one telling or one moment, but that slowly, year after year, I learned what Christmas was all about by watching the people around me show me what Christmas was all about.

More than any other time of year, at our best, we become joyful people, hopeful people, loving people, peaceful people. We treat others a little better. We smile a little more readily. And we put lights on our houses and send out Christmas cards because we want to share that joy with others.

But this year, maybe like many of you, I noticed something interesting. Certain talking heads on television are telling us that there is a “war on Christmas”. To hear them tell it, Christmas is undergoing a full-blown, devastating attack on every front. And as I’ve listened to people argue about whether the cashier at Target should be saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, I’ve felt a little sad. Because in a season where we should be focused on the joy that Christ brings to us, we seem to be fixated on the idea that we need to defend Christmas.

I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think Christmas needs defending. At least, I don’t think it needs defending against any outside influence. Because, I really believe that if there is a war on Christmas, it doesn’t happen out there somewhere. Rather, it happens in here. In our hearts. And it’s not just in December. It’s year round.

I’ll tell you why. You might not know it, but though it is December, the new year is just getting started. That’s because while most of us turn over our calendar on January 1st, the church year starts instead on the first Sunday of Advent. That was back on December 1st this year. And on that day we start to prepare ourselves for Christmas. And just four weeks later, Christmas comes. And if you’re just looking at the calendar, you may think that means the year is almost done. But for Christians, it means the year is just beginning.

The birth of Christ is just the start of the story. It’s just the beginning of an incredible journey that lasts the entire year through. It’s the jumping off point. And all the things we feel in Christmas, the joy and hope and peace and love, aren’t supposed to slowly fade throughout the spring, and pop back up next December. They are supposed to grow and become more powerful throughout the year. This…this is just the start.

And if on December 26th this feeling that you have in your heart is gone, then, yes, that war on Christmas was successful. Not the culture war that people talk about out there, but the struggle between choosing to live into the Christmas story that we all know not just a few weeks a year, but every day.

What would it mean to tell that Christmas story every day? I’m not talking about with words. I’m talking about telling it with the way that we act, telling it with how we treat others, telling it with the joy that we give back to the world. What would it mean to not walk through life angry or stressed or fearful because things are changing, but instead filled with grace, filled with love, filled with hope?

I believe that’s possible. I believe that God makes that possible. And I believe that God wants that for us. I believe that because I believe the story of Christmas is tells us that. When humanity had wandered so far away from love and light and grace, God didn’t just send us a message from afar. God became one of us. And Christ taught us how to treat one another, not so much through words, but through actions.

And I think that’s how Christ wants us to tell the Christmas story now. Not by preaching it, not by  arguing over who is giving us what holiday greeting, but by living it. By telling the world by our actions what it means that we are Christmas people.

Tonight in Phoenix, on city streets, another UCC pastor I know is trying to tell the world this Christmas story. This Christmas he is preaching no so much by words, but by actions. He is bringing gifts of shoes and socks and soap and more to homeless and at risk youth who have been kicked out by their families. For many of them, he is the first adult that they’ve ever been able to trust. And through that trust, he is telling them the Christmas story.

Tonight in Afghanistan, as troops come in from patrols, military chaplains are serving them coffee and a little bit of holiday cheer while they are so far from home. And there, in the most unlikely of places, through their hospitality and willingness to listen, they are telling the Christmas story.

And tonight, in a small mountain town in Vermont, a sanctuary full of people are preparing to go back out into the cold night, after hearing the Christmas story, and make a decision about how to tell that story to the world for the next year.

There’s a Christmas carol that you might know. It’s called “Go tell it on the mountain”. It’s appropriate for a place surrounded by mountains, I think. The words are “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”

I love that carol. And I love the idea of going and telling this story. Go tell it on Mt. Snow. Go tell it at the top of Haystack. Go tell it on each one of the Green Mountains. But don’t stop there. Go and tell it in your homes. Go and tell it in your hometowns. Go and tell it in the highways and byways and everywhere you can think of. Go and tell it…Jesus Christ has been born in a manger, and that birth has changed everything for you. Go and tell the Christmas story all year round.

You don’t have to use words to tell it. In fact, it’s probably even better if you don’t. Tell it with you life. Tell it with your actions. But go, and tell it…

Questioning Advent: Day 23 – No Room in the Inn

1483073_10151752722391787_559567358_nThere is a Christian tradition about the spot where Jesus was born. There is a church in Bethlehem that was built over the very spot where Jesus was said to have laid in a manger. It is considered so holy, that three different Christian traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, have laid claim to it for centuries, and now they all have monks that live there, and there is sort of an uneasy truce. The monks still, to this day, sometimes even have fist fights over the space.

Now, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for the place he was born. I’m not even sure if that’s the exact place he was born or not, or if it even matters. But what I am sure of is that we remember that place where Christ was first born. We remember it enough to want to know exactly where it was, and to keep that place holy.

You know what we don’t remember? We don’t remember the name of the inn.

Was it the Bethlehem Hotel? The Road to Nazareth Convention Center? The Holiday Inn?

We’ll never know. But, I often wonder if the inn ever realized who they turned away. I wonder if a few decades down the line, they realized that when Jesus’ mom had come to the door, they hadn’t given her a room. They’d given her some hay.

Now, if this was just a story about an innkeeper who missed a chance to open the doors to Christ over 2,000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2,000 years ago. It’s about what God did, and what God still does. And it’s about what we do next.

Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.

Sometimes God knocks at our doors, and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out, and we don’t really like what we see, or we don’t like what it would mean to let Christ in, and we close the door and say: “There’s no place for you here”.

But sometimes, even when we don’t really want to, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do anyway. And that matters. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read. It may be about Mary and Joseph, and the baby and the manger, and no room at the inn. But that story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago. It teaches us about opening ourselves up to what God is trying to do in us in this world. And it’s about telling God that, even if we don’t know what it means yet, there is room for God in our lives, and we want to be part of what God is doing.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. It’s time to decide. How are you going to open your door to Christ this year? And how are you going to join the Christmas story?

Prayer: God, as we prepare for the most holy night, we ask that you will give us courage to open the doors of our hearts to you. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 21 – Putting Worship First

IMG_0155This time of year many of us are feeling two things: overjoyed and overwhelmed. There is so much about the Christmas season that is wonderful. But at the same time there is so much on our to-do lists, that we might not give ourselves much time to feel that joy.

This is often especially true for clergy. Tomorrow at my church we have the children’s Christmas pageant. Tomorrow afternoon my wife leads a Lessons and Carols service at another church. And Christmas eve we are back at my church for two services. That means that this weekend is being spent writing sermons, recruiting ushers, and making sure that all the details are taken care of.But at the same time, this year I’ve been consciously trying to devote more time to actually sitting back and enjoying this season. I’ve spent evenings sitting by the tree, helping to bake cookies, and writing Christmas cards. Sometimes I’ve thought to myself, “but there’s so much else that I should be doing…how can I take a break and do these things?” I’ve been talking back to that voice this year. I’ve been reminding myself that God wants us to feel joy, and what better joy than that which is spent celebrating the season of Christ’s birth?

We are in the last days of Advent. A few nights from now we enter the season of Christmas joyously. But today you may be feeling like another obligation is the last thing on your list. A Christmas eve service might feel like another “to do” item on your list. A luxury you can’t take the time for amidst cooking, wrapping presents, and entertaining guests.
 
Do it anyway. Mostly because worship is never a waste of time, but also because you deserve this time to feel the joy of the Christmas season. You need this time to remember what everything else going on around you is really all about. And your soul thirst for this chance to feast on the goodness that is God’s love. Nothing puts a joyful season in better perspective than celebrating Christ’s birth. Bring your families. Bring your house guests. And bring your joy. There’s more than enough room for everyone in this inn.

Question: What is standing in between you and worship this Christmas?

Prayer: Good and holy God, we give you thanks that you took the time to bring us your love in person. This Christmas, help us to make time for you, and the joy that you bring. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 10 – Not So Silent Night

20131210-140908.jpgOn Christmas Eve two years ago our sanctuary was packed to capacity. We filled the pews to the max, then added folding chairs in the back. Then, finally, people took up standing positions in the back and down the side aisles. By the time we made it to the end of the service, when we sing “Silent Night” by candlelight, I was pretty sure that between the over fire capacity crowd, the 150 year old wooden building, and the candles we were going to burn down the church.

So last year we broke with tradition and went from one Christmas Eve service to two. We decided the early service would be a “family friendly” one that was earlier in the evening and featured a children’s pageant. The later would be the traditional, relatively quiet candlelight service.

The children’s service was wonderful. The kids sang “Away in a Manger”, they brought the “Baby Jesus” (a recycled doll) up to the creche, and they “lit” their child safe “candles” with the lightbulbs on top. And, yes, they made a lot of noise. They made the sort of happy, joyful noise that children make when they are in a place where they know that they are valued and loved. I couldn’t be happier.

On Christmas Eve we celebrate the fact that God became one of us. And the remarkable thing is that when God became human, God didn’t choose to be someone who was strong, or respected, or powerful. God chose to come as a powerless newborn child. That’s why seeing the joyful, boisterous children at church last Christmas made me especially happy. They are reminders to me of the way God chose to first show us Christ.

But after worship, as I stood by the outside door, one man I’d never seen before made clear to me that he didn’t see it that way. “Those kids were such  distraction!,” he told me. “The service would have been perfect if they hadn’t been here.” Then he disappeared into the snowy night, never to be seen again.

I suppose I could have gotten mad about it. I could have indignantly reminded him that it was the family-friendly service, where kids are allowed to be kids. I could have said that even if they had been loud at the later service, that would have been fine by me. But instead I just said, “Merry Christmas” and wished him well.

But what I really wanted to say to him was this: Yes, those kids were a distraction. They broke up our silent night. They brought chaos to order. They lit their candles at the wrong time! They made sure nothing went as planned.

But, really, isn’t that the exact same thing that the baby who came 2,000 years ago did too? Didn’t Jesus make us shout about a new way? Didn’t Jesus shake up the order of things? Didn’t he bring light to the places where it wasn’t expected? Wasn’t that child a distraction?

And aren’t we better for it?

In Advent we get ready for a holy distraction. We prepare ourselves for something that will change everything. And in order to really receive the joy that Christ brings, we have to be ready to give up all the quiet and orderly places in our life and let them be filled by a child who has something much more joyful in store for us than anything we could imagine.

Question: What places in your life are so well-ordered, and run so perfectly, that you are afraid of letting in the messiness of Christ’s love?

Prayer: Holy God, when you became like one of us, you came as a child. God, help us to welcome the child, whether it’s the one who came to us 2,000 years ago, or the one who comes today. And when we welcome them, help us to allow them to turn our order into holy chaos, and our holy chaos into joy. Amen.

The Second Part of the Christmas Story: A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2012

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nEvery year, on Christmas eve, we tell the same story. We read a passage from the Bible, usually the one I just read from Luke, and we remember what happened one night over 2,000 years ago. You can probably tell it with me:

A census was being taken. And there was an unmarried couple named Joseph and Mary who were about to give birth. They had to go and be counted, and so they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they got there, there was no room in the inn. And so Mary had the baby out in a manger. Not long after, the angels went to the shepherds and announced the birth, and they came and saw the baby there. And the baby was named Jesus.

We know this story. But every year we read it anyway. And, not to take away the suspense, but if you come back here a year from tonight, we’ll be reading it again.

Part of the reason is that it’s the only one we have. A lot of people have asked me during the course of ministry, why does the Bible end when it does? We have the New Testament with all these books written back in the first and second centuries, but then we have nothing. It’s almost as if the story ends. We don’t get an update each Christmas on what’s going on. We don’t get a Christmas letter filled with news from Jesus. We don’t get a new version of the Bible delivered every December. And so every year we read this story again.

You might be wondering, what’s the point? The story never changes. And if you’re talking about the words found here in the Gospel that we read every year, you’re right. But if you’re talking about the real story, the bigger story, the story about Christ’s birth and what came next, then that’s different. Because the Christmas story does change from year to year, and I’ll tell you why: The Christmas story changes, because we, you and I, change.

You know that question about why the printed story ends in this book? I think it’s because of this. I think it’s because this book tells the story of Christ’s first followers, back when there were only a few. But not long after this, a lot of other people got to know about Christ, and got to know the story of the first Christmas. And if we told the stories of all the people who have come to understand what the baby born that night was all about, if we tried to write them all down, one book would not contain them.

The national denomination this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a motto that we use. We say, “God is still speaking…” And by that we mean that God did not stop being active in our world and in our lives 2,000 years ago. We mean that God still is working in this world. God still is transforming it, and transforming us. God isn’t just in the past. God is here now.

And we, the people of a still speaking God, are still listening. And we are still hearing the stories, not just ones written so long ago, but also ones all around us. And even if this story we hear on Christmas eve every year isn’t changing, we are. And the most miraculous part of it is this: If we are really changing, if we are really being transformed by God’s love for us, then we are becoming people who not only listen to the Christmas story but who also become a part of it ourselves.

If you are truly want to get to know that baby who was born 2,000 years ago, if you truly want to follow the person he grew up to become, then you cannot help being changed. And you cannot help becoming a part of his story. And that means you cannot avoid becoming part of the greater Christmas story, a story of hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

And that’s a good thing. Because the world needs all of those things in abundance right now. The past few weeks, we’ve seen that so clearly. One of the reasons that I believe the Christmas story still matters for us is that I believe God cannot be done with us if we are still inflicting pain on each other. God cannot be done with this world. And that means that God’s people cannot be done working to transform it either.

And that means that you and I, the people who come to celebrate the birth of a child so long ago, have some work to do. And we have a story waiting for us to become a part of it. The child born tonight grew up to be a man who told us to live lives of peace. Who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Who told us to turn away from things that ultimately mean little, and instead turn to what really matters; to turn our hearts towards God and towards one another.

This time of the year, we sing a lot of carols about that child. We celebrate in ways we don’t the rest of the year. And we talk about things like peace, and joy, and hope. But if we really mean it, if we really want to be a part of this Christmas story, then we can’t pack those things away next week along with the wrapping paper and the ornaments. We have to be a part of this story every day, and not just every December.

If we are truly doing that, then we will have incredible stories to share ourselves. Stories of kindness and compassion where they were totally unexpected. Stories of generosity in times of scarcity. Stories of peace in a time of violence. Stories of hope in our darkest hours.

What if you were to tell the second part of the Christmas story tonight? What if you were to read this passage we read tonight, and then you were to say, and here’s my second part. Here’s my story about what happened next. Here’s my story about how the love and life of this child born tonight has changed me. Here’s what happened when this Gospel story and my life’s story intersected, and everything changed. The story is the starting point. But you are what happens next.

Christmas is not just about the story of Christ being born in a manger 2,000 years ago. Christmas is about the story of Christ’s love being born in our hearts everyday. And it’s the story of how you respond. Not just tonight, and not just tomorrow, but everyday.

Next December 24th, I invite you to all join us back here once again. Here’s a spoiler: We’ll be reading the same story. But it’s just the start of the story, and between this year and next year, your Christmas story will have changed. And the more that you open your hearts up to Christ’s love this year, the more you let it be born inside of you, the better that story, your story, will be next year. May Christ’s light shine in your hearts brightly this Christmas eve, and may it shine ever brighter in your lives, and in our world, all through the year.  Amen.

Journey Through Advent – Day 23 – Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is fast approaching here in Vermont. The sun is already getting lower in the sky, and the candles are out at the church, ready to go. As for me, I’m getting there. A few more things to do, and I’ll be ready too.
But, really, I’d love just one more day. One more day to wrap presents. One more day to build that gingerbread house we bought. One more day to write the sermon I want to preach tonight. The reality, though, is whether I’m ready or not, Christmas is coming.
That’s true spiritually as well. Our spiritual life may be something that we put on a shelf and say “I’ll get to it soon…when I have everything else done…when I’m ready.” But, ready or not, God comes and breaks into our life when we least expect it.
The story of Jesus’ birth is a story of an unexpected arrival. Mary wasn’t expecting to become pregnant. The inn wasn’t expecting for the parents of God incarnate to come knocking on the door. And they weren’t expecting to be turned away and given just a barn and a manger.
The world wasn’t ready either. They weren’t ready for a savior who came in the form of a powerless baby. They weren’t ready for the person he grew up to become. And they weren’t ready for the things he preached. Things like peace, and justice, and loving each other as much as we love ourselves.
The world is still not ready for this. And that’s why we need it more than ever.
Tonight, ready or not, open your heart up to the one who has come to change everything. Open your heart up not just to the child in the story we read, but to the living Christ who wants to enter into our hearts. Open your heart up to what is about to happen next, if you only follow that Christ with your whole life. Because, ready or not, something wonderful is waiting.
May Christ’s love bless you this Christmas, and always.

Journey Through Advent – Day 21

IMG_0155This time of year many of us are feeling two things: overjoyed and overwhelmed. There is so much about the Christmas season that is wonderful. But at the same time there is so much on our to-do lists, that we might not give ourselves much time to feel that joy.

This is often especially true for clergy. Tomorrow at my church we have the children’s Christmas pageant. Tomorrow afternoon my wife leads a Lessons and Carols service at another church. And Christmas eve we are back at my church for two services. That means that this weekend is being spent writing sermons, recruiting ushers, and making sure that all the details are taken care of.But at the same time, this year I’ve been consciously trying to devote more time to actually sitting back and enjoying this season. I’ve spent evenings sitting by the tree, helping to bake cookies, and writing Christmas cards. Sometimes I’ve thought to myself, “but there’s so much else that I should be doing…how can I take a break and do these things?” I’ve been talking back to that voice this year. I’ve been reminding myself that God wants us to feel joy, and what better joy than that which is spent celebrating the season of Christ’s birth?

We are in the last days of Advent. Two nights from now we enter the season of Christmas joyously. But today you may be feeling like another obligation is the last thing on your list. A Christmas eve service might feel like another “to do” item on your list. A luxury you can’t take the time for amidst cooking, wrapping presents, and entertaining guests. 
 
Do it anyway. Mostly because worship is never a waste of time, but also because you deserve this time to feel the joy of the Christmas season. You need this time to remember what everything else going on around you is really all about. And your soul thirst for this chance to feast on the goodness that is God’s love. Nothing puts a joyful season in better perspective than celebrating Christ’s birth. Bring your families. Bring your house guests. And bring your joy. There’s more than enough room for everyone in this inn.