Sermon transcript for December 29, 2013
First Sunday of Christmas
Audio - MP3
Today is the now the 5th day of Christmas. Christmas morning has come and gone. The weeks of waiting expectantly for Christmas morning are over. The days of preparing, baking, shopping, and decorating are behind us. All of the Christmas gifts have been opened. Luckily, for most of us, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh came with a gift receipt so we can exchange it. Without a doubt, the holiday cheer is dissipating. The Advent wreath is put up. A return to normal life is creeping back in. The houseguests have all returned home. The shepherds have returned to the fields to tend their flocks. The magi made a detour and returned to the East by another way.
In our scripture today, we find the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – in this post-Christmas morning lull. The months of expecting are now over. The baby shower has been thrown. A child is born. Now what are they to do?
Well the harsh realities set in for this exulted, yet, lowly king. Joseph has a dream and he is told of Herod’s impending plot to kill baby Jesus. What happened to all that joyful and triumphant stuff? The angel tells Joseph, “You must take your family and escape to Egypt.” Christ’s birth, God’s presence among God’s people does not simply rid the world of evil. This reminds me of how with the help of the entire congregation the youth group was able to send over 300 deodorants to the women of Grace Place UMC in order to give Christmas presents to their fellow inmates at Mark Luttrell Prison in Memphis. After the Christmas season is over, in the New Year the Tennessee Department of Corrections is scheduled to execute two persons for the first time since 2009.
We still find ourselves living in a world of brokenness, dysfunction, pain, and oppression. Where young parents must flee their homeland as political refugees to live as aliens in a foreign land. We have to look no further than our Golden Triangle brothers and sisters. There still are tyrants who rule with an iron fist. There is still military occupation in Afghanistan. There are still mothers in Sudan weeping for their murdered children. There are still feelings within ourselves just like Herod’s to protect what we think is rightfully ours.
Can you believe in a matter of the first eighteen verses of chapter two, Matthew has introduced us to these the magi following a star, bringing gifts, falling on their knees and then before you know it Matthew has quickly moved on to the bloodshed of children. These first 18 verses of Chapter Two highlight our human condition: Our deepest desires to praise and adore the presence of God in our midst and, yet, our stubbornness to be moved by God’s grace. God does not cause the about face and horrendousness of this Christmas story. It is our humanly reaction to God with us, God coming to be among us that threatens our sense of ourselves.
My wife and I have made it a tradition since we’ve been in Nashville to go to the Belcourt Theater the week before Christmas to see a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life. My favorite part is the closing scene at the home of George Bailey, where his daughter is at the piano bench playing Charles Wesley’s “Hark The Herald Angel Sing.” She plays as the people of Bedford Falls unexpectantly pour into the Bailey home with handfuls of money to generously save George from the plot of Mr. Potter. The Bailey home is filled with laughter, generosity, singing, and voices of children. This is where I want the Christmas story to end. Today’s reading is a reminder of our own destruction and havoc.
So where is the good news in this Christmas story? It is the Lord appearing to Joseph telling him it safe to take his family back to Israel because Herod has died. The good news is the Herods, the powers of this world will not prevail. Sooner or later they die. Sooner or later they lose their grip on control. The gospel tells us the final victory has already been decided and the Herods of this world are not going to be victorious. Beginning at resurrection, when the all of the disciples had gone home, God again is victorious over the death dealing powers of Herod and Caesar. We now continue to look for Christ’s presence among us.
I am indebted to Jim Harnish for sharing this story this past week. In an edition of the Upper Room, James Martin tells of his experience returning from a trip to the Holy Land. He waited in the security line at the Tel Aviv airport. It finally came time for his inspection and the security officer carefully examined his bag. To James’s surprise, the officer unpacked and unwrapped each figurine of an olive wood nativity set he picked up when he visited Bethlehem. After this hand examination, each piece was sent down the belt through the x-ray machine. No piece was spared, not even Baby Jesus.
I imagine James was a bit bewildered by the meticulous attention given to this innocuous nativity set. As he watch the pieces pass through the machine, the security officer explained, "We must be very careful to make sure there is nothing explosive in them."
All of the figurines passed the security inspection and made it home to his children. James later reflected on this experience and realized that the nativity is indeed history's most explosive event. Jesus' birth sparked a radical change that even Herod sensed. God's love became visible in fleshly form. Jesus' message continues to transform the lives of those who believe its explosiveness.
Take a look around you. There is a lot more elbow space here this morning then there was on Tuesday night. Churches everywhere fill up again and again each year on Christmas Eve. For many people it is the one time each year they venture into a church. They come again and again each year on this one night to hear the one story they know, a story of hope. Hearing the Christmas story each year gives all of us comfort in the familiar carols and the message of hope the Christ child brings. Those new faces that joined us on Christmas Eve came to recount the story of hope in world of distress. In hearing the story again, we all hope that the explosive events of the nativity scene, God with us, will transform our individual lives and our world. The world is waiting to hear the radical change sparked by Jesus' birth.
Howard Thurman says:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
The Christmas story is not only the happy parts of holiday cheer. We have the ability shine Christ love on a longing world with the brightness of the Star that drew the Magi to Bethlehem and the capacity to illuminate our stubbornness on center stage. God with us gives us life and threatens everything we think we are. Go into the world to share Jesus’ explosive birth to a world longing to be transformed by God’s love.
Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).
Sermon transcript for December 24, 2013
God at Our Doorstep
Christmas Eve—December 24, 2013
Belmont UMC--Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
I have always told my children this story, a true story from my childhood. It was from a time when I was small child, and I lived with my family in a country farmhouse, way out on a gravel road in the southern part of Robertson County, here in Tennessee. The homes were few and far apart. These were simple houses, most of which had not been upgraded with things like modern plumbing, or central heating systems or even single line phone systems. Most of the houses had been wired for electricity after the establishment of TVA, which meant each room had one electrical outlet and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in every room. Very few cars traveled our road and very few people knocked on our door.
My grandparents lived on a neighboring farm down the road. I recall sitting with them at their kitchen table eating good, hearty farm food, and if someone happened to drive down our road during meal time, their conversation would shift to wondering who that was or where they were going.
Grandmommy would say, “Who was that?”
Granddaddy would respond, “That was Mr. Smith’s old Plymouth. He must be going to the doctor again. Or maybe he went to get that part for his tractor; the thing was broken down all last week.” They would entertain us with these speculations.
On one Christmas Eve we were gathered in the living room of the farmhouse. There was the Christmas tree, a cedar cut on the farm and adorned with our simple ornaments. Coals burned in the fireplace to heat the room. My brother and I were too excited to go to sleep. Mom and Dad kept telling us to go to bed, but we could not settle down. When my boys were little and all excited, I would say, “They have happy legs!” On that evening we had a bad case of “happy legs.”
Mom said, “If you don’t go to sleep, Santa will not come.” Parents have been telling their children this for generations and it’s absolutely true. It’s been true for me for 61 Christmases now. But I could not overcome my excitement and my parents, usually very strict about such things, were cutting us a little slack. It was Christmas Eve after all.
Then there was a loud knock on the front door and the four of us went quickly to the door. I opened the door and in front of me stood Santa Claus. His huge size filled up the doorway and his hands were on his hips and he looked frustrated. He said, “Kenneth Edwards, why are you still awake? You know I cannot bring your gifts until you go to sleep.” Then he picked me up in his arms (I was terrified.) and he said, ‘I’m going to give you and your big brother one more chance. I’ll be back later but you better be asleep.”
He put me down and my brother and I ran like lightning up the stairs, into our beds, and pulled the quilts up over our heads, until we fell asleep.
Annie Dillard, in a short essay, recalls her own childhood experience with Christmas Eve. Her family had returned from dinner and settled into their celebration. There was a commotion at the front door. It opened and her mother exclaimed, “Look who’s here! Look who’s here!”
Annie Dillard wrote, “It was Santa Claus, whom I never wanted to meet.” He “stood in the doorway monstrous and bright” with “night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky.” She ran upstairs and hid. Her parents encouraged and pleaded but she refused to come down. She was afraid of Santa. Santa was not to be seen, but he could see her and he knew whether she had been good or bad and she had been very bad (or so she thought.)
She was afraid of God, too. She reflects, “I misunderstood and let everyone down. God I’m sorry I ran from you and I’m still running . . . for you meant only love and I felt only fear and pain. . . So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.” (“God in the Doorway,” Teaching a Stone to Talk)
My wife tells the children of a Christmas Eve when God came knocking on their door. She was a child and she lived with her family in a parsonage (her father was a pastor). One Christmas Eve they had just finished reading this passage from Luke 2:1-20, the story of Jesus’ birth, when someone knocked on their door. It was a young couple with a tiny baby. They were on their way home for Christmas when they ran out of money and out of luck. Her parents invited them in and fed them a simple meal of scrambled eggs and toast. The children went to their rooms and found toys to give to the baby. Her mother gave the couple some baby clothes that had belonged to the older children. Then her Dad took them to a gas station and filled their tank for the journey and then put them up in a motel room for the night.
My wife believes this was a visitation from God and through this visitation they understood the story they had read from the Bible. They understood how young Mary was and how troubling and fearful the journey to Bethlehem must have been. They felt Joseph’s and Mary’s sense of isolation and the strangeness of everything.
I love Christmas Eve; it’s one of my favorite days of the year, because it’s the night we remember again how God came and stood in the doorway between our two worlds and we do not have to be afraid. It does not matter what we’ve done or who we are; because all that matters is who God is and what God has done for us. We only have to open the door and allow God’s love to come into our lives. Tonight God is at our doorstep. Don’t be afraid. Open the door. Make room. Make room.