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Sermon transcript for December 24, 2012

The Promise in Bethlehem
Luke 2:1-20
Belmont UMC—Christmas Eve 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching

I’ve always liked small towns. I grew up in a town of less than 10,000 people—a place where everybody knew everybody or was just a couple of steps from knowing them. When my older sons were in high school we went to a small, county seat town east of Nashville for a street fair. I loved the quaint feeling of the town and I kept saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to live here. I could pastor the United Methodist Church and we could walk to the drug store, post office and the barber shop.” My sons were not thrilled with the idea. My oldest said, “Feel free to make that move once I’m in college.” The other son said, “Dad, I love you, but you do need to get a life.”

Small towns have character and small towns have characters. They have s strong sense of community and identity. Bethlehem was a small town, a quiet place, the Mayberry of the Middle East. It was know as a good place to raise grain. Hence, its name means “House of Bread.” But in any real appraisal of the area, Bethlehem was a quiet and insignificant place.

But it was in this sleepy little town that David was born and chosen to rule over Israel. And David loved his home town. He had fond memories of being a shepherd boy, of cool drinks of thirst quenching water at the well at Bethlehem’s gate.

In David’s adult years, as King of Israel and a leader of soldiers, he would once again come near Bethlehem. This time the town was under siege, taken over by the Philistines. He looked longingly toward the town of his youth, and thinking aloud, he shared his wish to once again be refreshed by the water at the Bethlehem well.

His soldiers, who loved him and were extremely loyal, overheard his longing and made their way through the enemy lines and filled a container with water and brought it to David. David was deeply moved by their actions and the risks they took on his behalf. He did what seems to us a peculiar thing. He said, “I cannot drink this; it is not water but the blood of the men who risked their lives for me.” He poured the water out as an offering to God. (2 Samuel 23:15ff)

Micah, the prophet, points to another time, a future time, when God would visit Bethlehem. At this visit God again would break through the enemy lines of our resistance and bring us water that would spring up into everlasting life, water that would forever quench our spiritual thirsts. God would do this wonderful thing in Bethlehem, in a person we call the Son of David.

On this night Bethlehem is a small town with big news--wonderful, joyous news that came first to a band of shepherds minding their flocks and their own business on a nearby hillside. But this news if for all people, for you and me: “a savior has been born in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you. You will find the baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” On this night we, too, go to straight to Bethlehem to see this thing that God has done!

 

Sermon transcript for December 23, 2012

The Promise of a Child
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
Belmont UMC—December 23, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching

I suspect that most of us have specific mental images of the nativity and most of those were born in our childhood and those early crèches that were unboxed during the Christmas season. We opened the boxes of those store bought nativities with ceramic figures bearing fixed expressions. Every year we pull them out of the attic and there they are, Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, magi and a few animals—deluxe sets come with angels.

The crèche of my childhood still finds its way to a side table in my parent’s living room each year. It was purchased at the local five and dime over 50 years ago. It is a cardboard stable with straw glued to the roof and floor. Inside the stable are the main characters, mother, father, infant in a manger. It actually folds our when unboxed and glued to the now outer setting are the shepherds, sheep and wise men.

In my childhood fake snow in aerosol cans hit the market and my mother bought several cans and sprayed everything in the house with it, including the nativity. We all thought the Bethlehem stable looked more Christmassy with snow on top. She hit the wise men and shepherds from the side so the fake snow made them look like they were sporting lopsided white beards. There is still some residue of fake snow on that nativity.

I have mystical memories of driving to Nashville and viewing the Centennial Park nativity. It was one of the most fantastic things I’d ever seen. Set up against the backdrop of the Parthenon it was wonderful and mysterious at the same time.

A number of years ago I went to Israel in early December. It was a wonderful trip that I would like to repeat some day. I had looked forward to my trip to Bethlehem. I knew what it looked like because I’d seen it in Christmas cards. I pictured it nestled inside a huge snow globe that only God could shake. I knew there would shepherds somewhere on a hillside watching their sheep.

On our trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, our tour bus spent some moments at a check point. Israeli soldiers were there, with rifles strapped over their shoulders. Our first stop was at a gift shop which sold olive wood carvings of crèches, crosses and menorahs. Along the way there were more shops and merchants in the streets selling t-shirts and postcards. Bethlehem square was filled with people, more merchants, people stringing Christmas lights outside the church, children begging for our dollars. We were warned to watch for pickpockets.

The ancient Church of the Nativity is built over the traditional site of the Jesus’ birth. We made our way into a lower area near the altar. There, in a cave-like setting is a metal star imbedded in the floor. The star marks the sacred spot of the birth of Jesus. There was no manger, no crying baby, no angels hovering overhead, no fake snow, no spot lights. And yet, it felt sacred to me.

Outside in the courtyard, as we were leaving, I was drawn toward a loud demonstration. Two days after our visit, Bethlehem would be turned over to Palestinian control. The people were rallying and demonstrating—a man was yelling something in Arabic into a microphone. Israeli armed personnel carriers arrived all around me and soldiers spilled out carrying rifles. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was our tour guide and he was saying, “You should not be here; this is dangerous.” (That was not the only time he had to chastise me on that trip.)

Bethlehem was not how I had pictured it but that is where Jesus was born, in a town crowded with people, so crowded that there were no extra rooms for the holy family. When crowds like that show up so do the merchants hawking their wares, people just trying to make ends meet. It was loud and uncomfortable and Roman soldiers wandered the streets carrying weapons.

Into that setting, full of people, uncertainty, danger, poverty, God placed a child, God’s child. It was a real world—the real world we encounter every day. “Unto us a child is born, he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Why did God do this? The answer sounds simple--because God loves us. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son. . .” Those familiar words sum up the why of this holy season.

Barbara Brown Taylor imagines God saying something like this, “I’m so crazy in love with you that I will come all the way to where you are to be flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone. I will do it all—and all you have to do is believe me—believe that I love you the way you are, love you enough to become one of you.” (Mixed Blessings, p. 50)

Why did God do this? Why did God send a child into this world? God sent this child to reveal God’s self to us in ways that we could not understand otherwise.

Kathryn and I were at a District Christmas gathering a few years ago. The party was held at a church I had once served and the youth from that church were our hosts and waiters that night. The teenage boy who brought food and drinks to our table had a familiar face. I asked, “Do you by any chance know a man named Bill Smith? (not his real name)”

The boy replied, “Bill Smith is my father.” And then he added, “I get that a lot.”

I said, “I bet you do. You are the spitting image of your father.”

Jesus is the spitting image of God. Later in his ministry he would say, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Unto us a child is born to reveal God’s self to us.

Why did God do this? To identify with our humanity and to say, “I’m not a God who is aloof and living way off in some heavenly place. I am here, among you, to know you, to understand you. I am Emmanuel.” God is with us!

Donald Miller relates a story that was shared by a former Navy SEAL from a covert operation to rescue American hostages from some dark place in our world. The team flew by helicopter to the compound where the hostages were held and “stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room . . . was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them that they were Americans. The SEALs asked the hostages to follow them, but they wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn’t believe their rescuers were really Americans.

The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs . . . got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. ‘Will you follow us?’ he said. The hero stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go.” (Blue Like Jazz)

In Jesus God became one of us, God came along side of us, God looked us in the eye and said, “I love you. You can follow me to freedom and to new life.” We have a word for this: “incarnation” (in the flesh) God became our flesh and lived among us.
This is why we are here, why we have Christmas, why we get so excited and over decorate our houses, sing carols, throw parties and celebrate with music and light. This is an event that deserves to be celebrated.

And we believe that we are called to honor this gift of the Christ Child by making God real (flesh) in our lives so that when people see us they will see something of this God who loves the world so much. In and through us may they experience and know the God who loves them enough to send God’s own child.

   

Sermon transcript for December 16, 2012

The Promise of Joy
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7
Third Sunday of Advent
Belmont UMC—December 16, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

Today’s texts point to the promise of joy and the third Sunday in Advent is often called the Sunday of Joy. Some churches use a pink candle in the Advent wreath on the third Sunday—a symbol of joy. Today I’m wondering where the joy is in this season.

We are perplexed and saddened by the events of two days ago in a small community called Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of more senseless gun violence, and the loss of innocent children and adults. We hold these folks in our prayers and thoughts; our hearts break for them. A young friend of mine described sitting in the car pick up line at his child’s elementary school on Friday. As he sat there, thinking about the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School, he began to cry. He looked around at other cars in line and all the parents were crying. The beautiful innocence of elementary school was shattered that day. And we wonder what this event says about Advent and Christmas or about the promise of joy? Many of us here today are struggling with our own grief and fear, and we find the words “promise of joy” to be hollow and distant.

If we look at the world around us there is so much darkness and trouble. In places like Syria and the Congo there is much suffering and despair. In our own nation, people continue to suffer the effects of Super Storm Sandy--some are without power, heat, homes and jobs as the holidays press upon us.     

And yet our texts speak of joy and rejoicing. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” (Zephaniah 3:14) “Do not fear; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival.” (3:17-18) Isaiah said, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”(12:3) Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (4:4)

Texts that promise the joy of God come up in surprising places in scripture. They frequent the texts that promise the return from exile for the Hebrew people. We recall how a whole generation of Israelites were taken to Babylon in exile, one of the darkest times in the history of God’s people, but still there were litanies of joy. Why?

The Apostle Paul uses the word “joy” in most of his letters and yet we know his life was filled with hardship and persecution. The words “Rejoice in the Lord always” were written from a Roman prison and Paul was uncertain if he would leave there or die there.

For the last two days I have struggled with saying the word “joy” at all but I recall how Frederick Buechner often uses the phrase “deep gladness” and somehow those words ring more true for me. (Buechner wrote, “God calls us to those places where our deep gladness and the worlds deep hunger meet.)  Deep gladness is not superficial; it is about our shared joy and it is centered in God’s genuine love for each of us and in our genuine and empathic love for each other.

For the Paul and the Prophets this deep gladness is rooted in a certainty that, no matter what the circumstances are, God will save us, God will prevail, God’s purposes will ultimately be fulfilled, and that in the end, God wins. It is rooted in the light of God that has come upon the earth in Jesus Christ and a belief that light always wins over darkness. In the language of this season, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.” (John 1:5) Not even the darkness of violence and evil.
Isaiah said, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (9:2). Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him--and for us.” (Source: The Power)
This promise of joy comes in the message of an angel to shepherds outside Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. “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.” (Luke 2:10-11)

There is deep gladness in knowing that God has chosen to come and live among us in Jesus Christ. God comes as one who has the power to save us. God comes as one who understands our profound suffering, our deep sadness, and our disillusionment. The Christmas message is that God sent his own child to live among us. God knows what it means to lose a child, and God is weeping with those who mourn today.

Bishop Rueben Job gives us a story from Nels Ferrer when he was teaching at Andover Newton Seminary. One of his students called him at midnight because their little baby had just died. Dr. Ferrer went to the small student apartment and sat with the grieving parents for two hours. Not many words were spoken, but when this wise professor stood to leave, he said, “God is crying, too.” (Living Fully, Dying Well) We have a loving, caring God, who knows and understands our suffering, who embraces us with divine love, and who enters into our suffering and loss. Isn’t this what Advent and Christmas mean to us?

This deep gladness is always entwined with hope for without hope we can know nothing of the deep gladness of God. The language of these prophetic texts always reminds us of the resurrection. So here on the third Sunday in Advent, we remember that even the darkness of Good Friday gives way to Easter possibility and in knowing this we experience the deep gladness of God. I believe this! Together we must lay claim to this hope in God!

Yes, the deep gladness of God springs up in us when we see God at work in and among us and when the grace of God reaches out to surprise us and light shines in our darkness:

Experiencing the trusting arms of an infant about to be baptized, watching returning soldiers standing at attention at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, waiting to be released to the longing arms of family, then watching two little boys dancing up and down and saying, “Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home,” a late night text message from our college son that read, “Good night Papa Bear. I love you,” or experiencing the encouraging words of a good friend at just the right moment, watching happy children making Christmas crafts in the Community Center, sitting in a circle of friends, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian friends, and laughing together over something we have in common, witnessing the kindness of church members toward our homeless guests on cold winter nights, watching an older adult stooping down to help a small child tie his shoes, or witnessing the depth of compassion our good citizens have shown to those whose lives have been ripped apart by violence. I could go on but there are so many instances when we know that deep gladness of God in our hearts that we cannot name them all.

God is calling all of us to respond to the needs we see around us today. God gives us the gift of compassion that stirs our souls and does not allow us to sit idly by and witness human need.

Over these last few days we have reached out to each other, we have hugged our children, we have grieved, and we have loved extravagantly. We need healing for our own woundedness. We need each other and are so blessed to be a part of this dear family of faith. At a class gathering last evening Charlie Warfield, Sr. asked us to look around at each other, really look at each other. It was time to give thanks for the people with whom we worship and fellowship and to know them and to give thanks for them.
We need to be together here today to hold on to one another. (Today’s passing the peace took on a whole new meaning for us.)

Tonight we will need to be here again, listening to the lessons and carols of this season, and may they help guide us toward that True Light who is God.

And we need to pray!

Loving God, we turn our broken hearts to you for healing. Our troubled spirits reach out in compassion to all those, whose lives have been upended by tragedy. We weep with them as you weep for all of us. Grant us wisdom, grant us peace, and hear our prayers. Amen.

 

Sermon transcript for December 9, 2012

The Promise of God’s Coming
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
Belmont UMC—December 9, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

When I was young the roads, even the state highways, which led in and out of our hometown of Springfield, Tennessee were winding roads. Occasionally, one would come upon a significant ninety degree curve. My father explained that these highways followed the old roads and the roads were not straightened because the farmers who owned the land had been well connected politically or they put a fight to keep land intact. Earlier in our history local governments were more reluctant to use the power of imminent domain to obtain land.

North of town and heading toward the Kentucky border the state highway had two of these dramatic curves. A couple of times I recall traveling that road with my family and coming upon an accident scene with the flashing lights of a highway patrol car and other emergency vehicles. It wasn’t unusual to see a car that had missed the turn, jumped the ditch and plowed through the farmer’s fence and into the cornfield beyond. It was a dangerous place, especially at night.

To prevent these accidents the Department of Transportation did several things: they installed a sign that indicated a sharp curve was ahead, they put up guard rails and they added reflectors. All of these things helped motorists know the need to slow down. But the thing helped the most was a huge sign that was erected just on the other side of the guard rail. The sign was placed there by some opportunistic Christians and the sign read in large bold letters, PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD! The thought of meeting God on that curve would slow a person down.

“Prepare to meet thy God” might be a good theme for us during Advent. The prophets we will be reading through the 4 weeks of Advent tell us that God is coming. God is coming. This is not a divine suggestion. God is not waiting for an invitation or even the human inclination toward hospitality. God is coming. And God is coming in a new, profound and transformative way. God is coming to live among us.

There is a knock on the front door of the house. You weren’t expecting company but you go to the door and sure enough there stands your cousins you haven’t seen in ages. As you open the door the first thing you notice are the very large pieces of luggage stacked behind them. You welcome them and their enormous luggage into the house. They’ve come for a visit, they tell you. I promise that you will find a way in that opening conversation to ask, “So, how long will you be staying?”

God has come to live among us and God has come to stay forever! Prepare to meet thy God! The prophets make it clear that God is coming and we must be prepared for God’s coming, proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

During Advent we talk a lot about preparation but the preparations we make are to our homes, not to our lives. We have traditions to keep, expectations to live up to, and company coming to the house for the holidays. We want everything to look festive and perfect. We cook and clean and decorate and wear ourselves out to make things so perfect. There are expectations.

My wife, Kathryn, and I watched “Christmas with the Kranks” last week. The movie is based on John Grisham’s novel Skipping Christmas. The Kranks’ nest is empty as their daughter has gone off to some foreign country. So they decide to forgo Christmas and book a Caribbean cruise. There will be no office gifts, no Christmas tree or giant Frosty the Snowman on the roof of the house, and no Christmas Eve party. This angers the neighbors, the office workers and friends. The novel and the movie highlight how difficult it is to change any of our Christmas traditions.

At our house during Advent we often run out of time trying to do everything because the church schedule is so full of rich traditions and experiences that home takes second place. We are often the last house on our block to get the decorations up. I remember one year, on the 17th of December we were trying to get last minute Christmas decorations up because we were hosting an office party the next night. I recall that it rained on the 17th and we had not put up our Christmas lights on the shrubbery in front of the house. My answer to that was, “Forget it this year!” My wife smiled in that way that says, “I’m ignoring you.”

My wife disappeared that evening and I finally realized that she was out in the rain placing strands of white lights on the bushes. I called out the door and reminded her that electricity and rain were not happy combinations. She smiled in that ignoring way again, water dripping down her face, and then continued on. To my credit, I had recently been certified in CPR so I pulled my CPR certification card out of my wallet so I could review the steps of compressions and breaths one more time.

Our children will tell you that it is their mother who makes Christmas special at our house. Dad would never get around to the decorating and shopping, left to his own devices. We do have certain expectations about the holidays and that’s fine. I always say that we are making memories and making memories is a good thing.

But the wonder of Advent and Christmas is not about the perfection of our recreated snow globe worlds. It is about this God who has come and who is comfortable coming into our messy, chaotic, cluttered lives, to live with us and to love us. And God comes with hope, redemption and forgiveness. Advent is not about our perfection, but about our willingness to make room for God in our hearts and lives.  

And because we welcome God into our lives, we are transformed. God comes and because God comes, we can no longer be the people we once were. God’s loving and gracious presence in our lives can cause some dissonance, uneasiness and unsettledness. We become aware of our need to change certain areas of our lives so that we can fully experience this ever-present God and over time we change, often without being aware of it.

John the Baptist calls this repentance, which doesn’t imply perfection, but it means a change of direction, a change of heart and mind-set—a transformation of the way we see the world and the way we think. Later in this chapter of Luke, the people asked John, “What shall we do?” or “What does this repentance mean?” John describes what this new life, this new way of being, looks like. It looks like sharing: if we have two coats share one with someone who is without. We are to do the same with our extra food. It means practicing honesty and integrity in our business dealings. It means being ethical in all our relationships. Repentance means that we are fully changed and that our lives are fully oriented toward God and God’s purposes.

For a NYPD officer on November 14th it meant going into a Skechers Store and buying a $100 pair of boots for a man who had no shoes or socks on his feet on a night of freezing weather on the streets of New York City. That’s what Officer Lawrence DePrimo did on that cold night, but what he did not know was that he being photographed by a tourist. The photograph was posted on the NYPD Facebook page and the first day received 320,000 likes. I know there have been twists and turns in that story this week, but what touched me was watching Officer DePrimo being interviewed on television. He seemed surprised by the attention. He said he was doing the only thing he could do; he did what was second nature to him.

This sounds like the language of repentance, the life that now thinks and responds differently to the world around it. Sharing what we have, unable to walk passed those in need, and participating in acts of kindness become second nature, because our lives have made room for God’s coming. Seeking justice for those who are oppressed, feeding the hungry, offering hope to those who despair, living lives that reflect integrity and honesty--all of these things are signs of repentance.

God has come into the world in a new and transformative way. God has come to live among us! We open our hearts and lives and welcome God in!

Let us pray: O Holy God, we hear the words of prophets promising the world that you will come among us. In this holy season we are fully aware that you have come and that your coming is powerful, redemptive and transformative. May we welcome you into our lives and into our hearts. Amen.

   

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