Do We Know the Story

Saturday, December 24, 2017 – Christmas Eve
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Luke 2:1-20

We gather tonight to hear the familiar story of the birth of Jesus. It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again. Yet, like most beloved stories we never grow tired of hearing it. But do we just gather tonight to hear a story that we know so well, or is there something else that draws us here this night? Is there something else we are looking for this evening? Something that we hope to experience? Is it even possible to hear and experience this story as if for the first time?

If your name is Imogene, Claude, Ralph, Leroy, Ollie, and Gladys Herdman the answer is most definitely yes. These are the six delinquent children from the fictional book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which starts off by telling us what happened in those days. It begins by saying the Herdmans were the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied, stole, smoked cigars, swore, and hit little kids. Then to everyone’s horror they went to church for the first time after being told that the church offered snacks. And despite protests from other church members, they were given roles in the Sunday school’s Christmas play. They had never heard this Christmas story that everyone is so familiar with. They didn’t understand why a pregnant woman would have to travel a long way to have a baby. They were shocked that no one would give them a place to stay. And they were outraged when they got to the part where Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus. In fact, they said that the story should be renamed Revenge at Bethlehem! What happened after that was unforgettable! If you haven’t seen this play, or movie or read the book, I encourage it highly. The point of the story is that the Herdmans, who everyone didn’t want be around – experienced this story with fresh eyes. What would it be like for us to experience the Christmas story as if it were the first time?

Think about it. A young woman is told she will bear God’s son. She is scared. It would be a dangerous undertaking for a young unwed mother at that time. She could be killed, and yet she bravely says “Yes, I’ll do it,” because she knows the importance of this child for the whole world. Yet she doesn’t really understand what’s going on. And if you stop and think about it, do we? Maybe this Christmas story has become just a story to us, and we aren’t shocked by it like the Herdmans. Yet the truth is, it is a shocking story.

It makes me think of that wonderful hymn, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” If you haven’t heard it, I’ll sing a few lines.

Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
We didn’t know who you were

Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn’t know who you were

“We didn’t know who you were.” It’s easy to look at the baby in the manger and think of the quiet Christmas story, but that night was anything but quiet.  It was an earth shattering night. It wasn’t a quiet night – Mary was giving birth – not a quiet undertaking -, and the animals were making noise, and the manger was probably smelly. It wasn’t what we think of in our cleaned up stories. But it was a holy night. It was holy because God became flesh in Jesus. We don’t understand it.  There’s no scientific formula to figure it out. There’s no video cameras that recorded the event. What we do have are eye witnesses – shepherds going about their ordinary work, when they saw something spectacular. They saw a star – not just any old star – but something out of the ordinary. Was it really a comet like some scientists say?  Perhaps, but does it matter? Something extraordinary happened that led them to the manger that night. The star led them. The angels led them. God’s very Spirit led them. Just like God’s Spirit led the Herdmans to go to that church and want to be in the Christmas pageant. Through them people really saw who this sweet little holy child was.

That same Spirit led us all here tonight to really see and experience who this sweet little holy child is. He is the Messiah – the one promised for generations – who came so that people would not be alone. He came so that nothing could separate us any longer from God. He came so that we too would enjoy the glories of God’s kingdom – a kingdom that begins right here on earth – in a manger, in a baby who would grow up to be the Savior of all people, in each one of us. This sweet little Jesus boy, this sweet little holy child, came for each and every one of us. Do we understand how? Do we understand how it was possible? No, we don’t understand any more than Mary or Joseph or the shepherds understood. What we do know through faith is that it was possible. It is possible. All the things we worry about, all the things that cause us to lose sleep, have been overcome by the birth of this holy child who is the Savior of the world.

On this night, heaven came down. God is with us. That is the great news of this night. Amen!

 

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Pointing to the Light

Sunday, December 17, 2017
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
John 1:6-8, 19-28

There are some common needs that all people hold in common. We all need food, and shelter, and a sense of love and belonging. And we all need a purpose, a reason for living. Each and every person no matter what age or where they live needs to feel that their life makes a difference in the world. Without a sense of purpose, life can seem pretty hopeless. A person needs to believe that their life matters. Living a life of purpose is living authentically and with intentionality. Our gospel lesson today tells us about just such a person.

We hear in this gospel account about a man named John. In Matthew’s gospel he is called John the Baptist. In Mark’s he is called John the baptizer. And in Luke’s gospel he is called son of Zechariah. But in John’s gospel, John is called just plain old John, a man called to be a witness. His mission, his purpose, is to testify to the light. His purpose wasn’t to draw attention to himself, or to be the top dog so to speak. His purpose wasn’t to make sure everyone knew how great he was, or how important he was. Instead, John’s purpose was to testify to the Light. John knew that it wasn’t all about him; it was about Jesus. That was his purpose.

John didn’t do this in a self-deprecating way. He didn’t put himself down, but spoke with authority. John lived a life of authenticity. He knew who he was, and what his particular gifts were. And he didn’t let the questions or the concerns of others shake him from his purpose. His strength came from God. John knew what he was called to do – testify to the Light – and no one was going to deter him from it. Too many people were living in darkness who needed to be guided toward the Light of Christ, and God worked through John to show them the way.

Who are the people who have pointed to the light in your life? A friend, a relative, a co-worker? How did they point you to the light? How did they infuse your life with light and hope? Did they offer you a reassuring word at just the right time? Did they give you a ride when you needed one? Did they bring you soup when you were sick? Did they encourage you when you felt like giving up? Did they sit with you in silence when you needed comfort, knowing that sometimes words at times are just not sufficient? Or maybe, like John, they told you at times things you didn’t want to hear for your own good. They wanted you to live up to your potential. These are all ways in which we are pointed to the light of Christ. These are ways in which we are reminded that God is with us through the hands, and feet, and voices of others. And in return, we too, can point others toward the light of Christ.

I saw this at work last week when I went with some of the Senior Shepherds of our congregation to deliver gifts for the women staying at the women’s shelter. You’ll never know the impact that these gifts have on them. They are signs of hope, and a message that God loves them. There are many other ways I have seen you all point to the light of Christ, and I know there are things that many of you do that I don’t even know about.

There is still a lot of darkness in our world today. People are craving the light. Perhaps it’s why Christmas trees are getting put up sooner; there’s a need for some light in the midst of the darkness. We are desperate for hope. Unlike tree lights however, the light of Christ never goes out. We need the light of Christ now more than ever. We all need to know that our life has meaning. And it does, simply because we are loved and treasured by God. Before we can point to the light like John though, we first have to believe in our own hearts that we can do it. So please hear me, you are loved and treasured by God. Your life matters. God has a purpose for you. Your purpose is to simply be the best person you can be. You are not a carbon copy of someone else. You are unique and special. Follow Jesus, and point others to him too, through your kindness, and compassion, and love.

When we share our faith with others by living our lives with intentionality and authenticity, we point to the light of Christ. No one could point to the light like John did, because there was only one John. God used his own unique character and gifts to reach people. In the same way, we each can point to the light of Christ in our own unique way, like no one else can. Each of us can reach others in a way that someone else can’t. Our purpose is to be authentic, and in being who we are we point to the true light of Christ.

In this third week of Advent as we journey closer to the coming of the Christ Child, the coming of the Light of the world, let’s take time to give thanks for all those people who have pointed us to the light of Christ. And let’s open our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to use us to point others to that same glorious light that brings hope, and joy, and peace. Amen.

Voices of Hope and Peace

Sunday, December 10, 2017
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 1:1-8

 

Readers can’t wait to open up the first pages of a new book! They can’t wait for the adventure to begin. It’s exciting! You have a general idea of the storyline, but you don’t know the where the journey will take you, or how it’s going to end. The same is true for movie-goers. You watch the trailer, and can’t wait to find out how the story will unfold. Stories are at the core of who we are as humans, and we each have a story to tell.

As Christians, we have a story to tell as well, and the gospel according to Mark starts with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Now that’s a bold and powerful start to a story isn’t it? Think about it, Mark is making the proclamation, right from the beginning, that Jesus Christ is no ordinary person. He’s not just a prophet or a messenger, but the Son of the living God. That is quite an opening! And it’s just the beginning.

Like many books or movies, Mark gives us a back story. He tells us what was foretold from the ancient prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Mark introduces us to a voice from the past who brings us into the present. Mark stresses these voices that give us detailed information about the Son of God. Each and every voice is important no matter how strange they may look, as in the case of John the Baptist with his wild appearance of camel hair clothes, eating locusts and honey. He’s an odd character for sure, but his voice is no less powerful.

Voices matter in Mark, every voice. Immediately at Jesus’ baptism, we hear the voice of God from heaven stating, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We hear Jesus’ voice throughout the gospel – calling the disciples, preaching, teaching, and healing. We hear the voices of people begging Jesus for help. We hear the voices of women, who at that time were considered lower than dogs, but Jesus heard their voices. And we hear the voice of the centurion soldier at the foot of the cross state, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” It was a brief voice, only one line, but a powerful voice to be heard.

Mark’s gospel is odd in that it begins with the voice of John the Baptist, is filled with so many voices, and yet, at the end of this gospel ends with no voices. But don’t let that fool you, because the ending of Mark’s gospel isn’t really the end. There’s room for more voices. And those voices are us. For we too, are witnesses to the resurrection. We too are a part of Jesus’ story. We, like the other disciples and the prophets like john the Baptist, have a story to tell. Our voice in this story matters as much as all the other voices, perhaps even more so today in this 21st century. People want to know and experience who Jesus is, and we are charged with telling them through our own unique voices.

Just as each gospel writer gives us a different understanding of Jesus, we too, are called to share our experience with Jesus through the stories we tell. Each one of us has been touched by his grace in different ways. Each of us has had interactions with Christ that need to be shared, for only in the sharing of our experiences can people come to know him too. As disciples of Jesus we are to be messengers, bearers of the good news of Jesus. We are called to be prophets – like John the Baptist – and speak the words of God to anyone who will listen.

A prophet’s job isn’t easy though. People don’t always want to hear the voice of God, because it doesn’t always initially bring comfort. God’s voice challenges us to see who we truly are and who we are called to be. God’s voice interrupts our plans to conform to God’s will and God’s plans. God’s voice demands that we take risks, and stand up for truth, and justice, and peace. God’s voice is relentless and will not be silenced.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, which Mark brings to us today. It is the good news that the voice of God continues. It is just the beginning. God is still speaking. God is speaking through us. We are a part of this wonderful story that is ongoing. We are the voices – the messengers, the prophets of today. And each and every voice matters.

As we journey through this Advent season, let’s share this good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with excitement. Let God speak through you in your homes, your neighborhoods, your schools, your workplaces. You don’t have to stand up and preach a long sermon. Just let the love of God shine through you in your actions of kindness, compassion, and love. When the opportunity arises, don’t be afraid to tell others what God has done in your life. Your story is powerful, even if you may not think so. Your voice can bring comfort and joy. Join in the Christmas caroling to the shut-ins to proclaim God’s glory in song. Let God use your voice to help pave the way for hope and peace. Amen.

 

Waiting in Grace

Sunday, December 3, 2017
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 13:24-37

Waiting, waiting, and waiting. How many of you like to wait? Is it one of your favorite things to do? Not really, right. We spend a lot of time waiting don’t we? You know, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, waiting in traffic, waiting in the doctor’s office….There’s several different kinds of waiting too. There’s the passive kind of waiting- when things are out of your control – like waiting for the bus to come, or the taxi, or your number to be called at the deli counter. Maybe it’s waiting for spring to come after a long winter. Passive waiting is more like a routine that we get into. We know we have to do it, so we just tolerate it. This kind of waiting leaves us living on autopilot – kind of like living in between places, and not really aware of what is going on around us.

Some waiting fills us with dread and anxiety, like waiting for test results to come back from school or the doctor. Waiting for medication to work. Waiting for news from a loved one to tell us they’ve arrived safely. Waiting for a pastor to arrive, or for a pastor – waiting to start a call with a particular congregation. Waiting for prayers to be answered. These things take time, and the waiting can be a real test of patience and faith. Sometimes we wait so long for things that when we finally get them we wait for the other shoe to drop, wondering if somehow it will be taken away. As a result this kind of waiting can leave us focused on the past, reminiscing of the ways things used to be and trying to get back to that place of comfort and security.

There’s another kind of waiting we do as well. It’s an active waiting, a waiting that’s filled with anticipation and excitement like when we are waiting for the parade to start, the concert to begin, the movie to start, or the party we’ve been waiting to attend. It’s the kind of waiting that children feel as we get closer and closer to Christmas – there’s an excitement, a sense of magic in the air, a sense of longing. That’s what active waiting is, and it’s filled with lots of energy. This kind of waiting has us focused on the future, looking forward to things to come.

Yet, no matter what kind of waiting it is, most of us don’t like to wait. Patience is a virtue that is getting harder and harder to find. Our society doesn’t help. We want things as soon as possible. We don’t want to have to wait. We want faster internet, faster wifi, and even fast food.  People used to ride trains all the time, but now planes seem to be the preferred mode of transportation as people need to get to their destinations quickly. It’s like we are in fast forward mode all the time, and certainly this time of year excellerates the process. And because we’ve lost the art of waiting, it’s easy to lose sight of what is really happening. We’ve lost the gift of the present – living in the now. I believe this is what Jesus is telling us in our gospel lesson today.

At the time this gospel was written, the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed. The people had endured oppression, defeat, and captivity from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. They constantly waited for the other shoe to drop, worrying who may conquer them next. They were focused on the end times, and the suffering that would happen before that final day. Many people are focused on that even today. They are waiting – not in joyful expectation of Christ’s return – but waiting and worrying as to what catastrophic event may happen next. The illusion is to think that is living in a state of awareness, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

If we look at fish we can see this clearly. Fish and sharks are constantly swimming. Their eyes are open and they look alert all the time. Yet, in reality, they may be sleeping, because fish and sharks can swim with their eyes open while being totally asleep. It’s automatic. Many people today are living the same way. We are constantly moving, continually on the go, our eyes are open, and yet, we are not truly awake.

Totally opposite to this is the friendly canine. A dog may be curled up on the couch, his or her eyes closed, and looking as though sleeping like an angel, yet they are in reality awake. You walk by them and their eyes open indicating that they’ve been alert the whole time – waiting, and ready to protect at any moment. They are fully present in the moment, even though it may not seem like they are paying any attention to what is going on around them. This is the kind of alertness Jesus is talking about. This is what Jesus means when he talks about keeping awake and being ready.

And what are we to be ready for? Jesus, of course. As he said, we don’t know when he will come again. We don’t know when he will arrive. We are slowly preparing for the remembrance of his arrival at Christmas, yet we are also preparing for when he will come again. Advent is the season of waiting for both these events. Even though society is urging us to speed up, it’s a season to slow down, to breathe deeply, and to wait actively with a focus not on the past or the future, but on the now. For the present moment is where we encounter God. When Moses asked God for a name, God said, I AM. Jesus said, I AM, not I was, not I will be, but I AM. God is present in the moments of our lives now. The Holy Spirit – the breath of God – is with us now. We may still have to wait, but we do not wait alone. Jesus says, “keep awake” and we can only do that if we are focused on the holy now of life. Each moment, each day, is a gift from God with graces abounding if we are awake enough to truly see them.

There are many different kinds of waiting, yet as we begin this new year of the Church, Jesus is calling us to a different kind of waiting. He urges us to “keep awake” and focus on what truly matters. God’s grace is found in treasuring each and every moment – don’t get lost in the rat race of living in the past or future. Don’t let the busyness of this time of year distract you from what really matters – a relationship with the living God, compassion for each other, living lives of Christian love – this is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. This is what discipleship is all about. This is how people will know we are Christians – by our love. And this is how we draw closer not just to Christmas, but to Christ. I am grateful and privileged to wait with you as we journey through this season of Advent together. Amen.