An Unexpected Christmas

Derek sang “O Holy Night” beautifully.  We are a weary world, but as the scriptures say, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  We are taught on this journey of faith to expect the unexpected because we love and serve a God that does the inconceivable.

Hear this strange and fascinating story of the song “O Holy Night.”  In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissionaire of wines in a small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it probably shocked Placide when his parish priest asked the commissionaire to pen a poem for Christmas mass. Nevertheless, the poet was honored to share his talents with the church.

In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France’s capital city, Placide Cappeau considered the priest’s request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, “Cantique de Noel” had been completed.

Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his “Cantique de Noel” was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician’s hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.

The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.

As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song–which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France–was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
Not only did this American writer–John Sullivan Dwight–feel that this wonderful Christmas songs needed to be introduced to America, he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” The text supported Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight’s English translation of “O Holy Night” quickly found found favor in America.

Back in France, even though the song had been banned from the church for almost two decades, many commoners still sang “Cantique de Noel” at home. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the beginning of “Cantique de Noel.”

After completing all three verses, a German infantryman climbed out his hiding place and answered with Martin Luther’s robust “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty-four hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day. Perhaps this story had a part in the French church once again embracing “Cantique de Noel” in holiday services.

Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden–a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison–did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.

Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, “O Holy Night” has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of the entertainment industry’s most recorded and played spiritual songs. This incredible work–requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and unexpectedly brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior–has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created.

Expect the Unexpected.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a staple around our house.  Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and the special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. It was written over a period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program’s soundtrack was similarly unorthodox: it features a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its absence of a laugh track (a staple in television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation led both the producers and network to predict the project would be a disaster. I love when Linus pipes saying, “I know what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!” and then he reads from Luke’s Gospel.  Did you know that almost wasn’t in there?   Shulz was asked to cut that part of the movie and he answered, “If we don’t do it, who will?” Shulz had Linus’s recitation of Scripture incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out.  It ended up being such a hit, that it won an Emmy, a Peabody award and it’s been run every Christmas since.  Expect the Unexpected.

Do you know which Christmas story was even more unexpected than that?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

“I feel so far away from my kids down there.”

God almighty, God the creator of the universe, God that was, and is, and is to come – came to earth as a tiny baby.  The most vulnerable thing on Earth.

The angels asked, “Lord, how will people know he’s there, what if they don’t notice?”  God answered, “Those who are looking will find him and his mission will bring all people closer to me, even if they do something really wrong. When the Prince (of Peace) is done nothing will get between them and my love.”

That’s the point of this meal we celebrate.  We don’t earn it.  It’s a free, beautiful, undeserved gift.  The Great God of the Universe came to give us the most brilliant present of all.  God’s self.

The Way of Jesus

Matthew 3:1-6

3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

In verse 4 of Matthew chapter 3 it says, “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Call me crazy.  I discovered this purely by accident.  But when John the Baptist is described I happen to envision my brother Josh.  As I sat thinking about how I would describe John the Baptist, Josh immediately comes to mind he went to Clemson, was a counselor at Asbury Hills, and he taught multiple spiritual life retreats and his final seminary project were on survival.  He tricked me when I was 7 ½ months pregnant with Enoch.  I was the campus minister at Winthrop Wesley and we had organized a camping trip.  I was used to staying at King’s Mountain State Park where you can park right at the campsite and bring board games, all sorts of snacks, and loads of gear.  He talked me into going across the street to Crowder’s Mountain State Park.   The campsite was a 1.8 mile hike!!!  Josh definitely wants to be a man living on the land and he’s convinced that we all should take plant classes so if we have to go to my grandparent’s farm, we can eat.  If the Zombie apocalypse comes no one is going to come anywhere close to Greeleyville or Williamsburg County so we’ll be safe there.  Now you might be imagining someone who is “rugged.”  No, not necessarily.   Scraggly – with his cut off khakis and flip flops.  Definitely tenacious and stubborn.  He can MacGyver anything.  Fearless?  Josh reminds me of John the Baptist not merely on his live on the land exterior, but he has the boldness and the bullheadedness of purpose that I’m sure that John the Baptist had.

John was not afraid to march to the beat of his own drummer.  He was not afraid to be different.  He was not afraid to be prophetic – no matter the cost, no matter the friends he lost, no matter if people pointed at him, no matter what they whispered at him, no matter if people called him an odd duck or weird or strange.

As they lit the Advent wreath earlier, we heard from a different Gospel writer, Mark, as he begins with a quote from Isaiah about John the Baptist.

Mark 1:1-4

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the 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,’”  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark and Matthew both explicitly name John the Baptist as the one the prophet Isaiah talked about.

Fast forward through Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, through the temptation of Jesus, and the start of Jesus’ public ministry to John the Baptist’s imprisonment.  In Matthew chapter 11, verses 2-6, “2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’”

Jesus wanted to continue John the Baptist’s legacy, making it complete, in him.  The prophets had foretold this.  Jesus’ wanted to build on John’s teaching, baptizing not just by water but by the Spirit.  Jesus wanted to continue the revolution that John had started.  Jesus also stepped to the beat of a different drum so he understood.  In fact, he created the drum.  Jesus asked John’s disciples to take back what they could hear and see.   Remember, Keep Awake, from last week’s text, we don’t know when we will cross to the other side of Jordan and no one knows the hour or the day, but we should be prepared all the time.  We should live like Christ calls us to ALL the time.  We should do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God 24:7:365.  It’s not out of guilt, it’s not about us earning our salvation, it’s out of joy and hope and love of God and neighbor.  It’s practicing what you preach no matter the cost or how hard it is.  Again, Jesus asked John’s disciples to take what they could hear and see.  If Jesus came back today, what would he hear and see?

Would he see us being hateful to one another by our sharp, critical, pessimistic, glass half empty, doomsday brand of legalistic Christianity?

Would he see our country so divided that each of us demonize the “other” calling them ignorant or unchristian or conservative or liberal or independent?

Would he see us loving our neighbor that may be different from us or just the ones we’re comfortable with, the ones we like, the ones who dress appropriately for church or who fit in and know the words to all the creeds?

There’s got to be a different WAY.  The world has got see a different way.  The way of love. Light. Hope.  Because if we’re not offering it than who is?  If we can’t offer a prayerful, calm, hope-filled word than what are we doing here?  Are we playing church or being church?

We lit this candle on the Advent wreath symbolizing Christ the Way.

Do we know the way?  In John 14:6 says, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That’s pretty clear.  I am the way.  I am the truth.  I am the life.  Model my behavior.  Be my light to the world.

Pope Francis writes in his “Evangeli Guadium” or The Joy of the Gospel, the first official document written entirely by Pope Francis, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” 

“More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving.”

“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.”

“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.  The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Amen.  Prophetic words that have much to teach us.

Pope Francis knows something of what the prophet Micah spoke of in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus calls us out and helps us to see.  He’s not passive aggressive.  He does it in love.  He gets to the heart of us.  He cuts through the rationalizations and why’s and excuses and he looks at us and we begin to squirm because in our heart of hearts we know we’re wrong.  We know we shouldn’t put our stock in tradition, ritual, rules, or anarchy, laissez faire attitudes, ambivalence to everything.

We may pile up all sorts of opinions and points in an argument or debate, but in the end, with Jesus, love is the last word of all – God’s love for US, for all the world, and all of creation.  During this season especially, let’s react first in love, not in judgment.  I know it’s hard for some of us.  It often seems like we’re merely reacting to what happens, instead of setting the course.  I learned this advice in defensive driving class that I always carry with me, “You can only control your car.  You can’t control what another driver does, how he or she acts, or whether or not they tailgate you and speed around you.  You can only control how YOU react to the situation.”

Speaking of tailgating, as we move through the Christmas shopping season, let’s not let our overflowing shopping carts prevent us from seeing where Jesus is steering us. He wants us to focus on him, not on luxurious lifestyles. As country singer George Strait noted,

You don’t bring nothing with you here
And you can’t take nothing back
I ain’t never seen a hearse, with a luggage rack.

If we buy things in order to have that fuzzy, warm feeling – it’s going to leave us empty, unfulfilled, and with maxed out credit cards.  This may be a tough path to walk, but fortunately Jesus strengthens us. He baptizes us “with the Holy Spirit” (v. 8), filling us with his presence and power. The Spirit of Christ offers us love, joy and peace, as well as other spiritual gifts: “patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These gifts are the marks of a Christian life, and are the clearest signs that a person is moving along the path of Jesus.

There is a story about a group of tourists visiting the Vatican. Their tour guide had told them about the famed Sistine Chapel: the place where the College of Cardinals meets to choose a new pope, the room whose ornate painted ceiling is Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

One aspect of the Sistine Chapel comes as a surprise to most first-time visitors: its size. It’s a rather small room. One young man was so eager to see Michelangelo’s painted ceiling, he dashed in one end of the Sistine Chapel and out the other. He mistook the Chapel for some kind of antechamber. The tour guide had to chase after him, saying: “Come back, you missed it — and this time, remember to look up!”

It’s the sort of mistake that’s so easy to make during Advent. It’s so easy to confuse Advent with a waiting room: to dash through these four short weeks, arms laden with packages, eyes cast downward, busy, busy, busy.  Just like Amy Grant’s Christmas song, “I need a silent night, a Holy night.  To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise.  I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here. To end this crazy day with a silent night.”  Advent is a destination in its own right.  To make him room.  To prepare the way.  To keep awake.  If we fast forward to Christmas, we’re missing out on the soul work God wants us to do this Advent season.  Doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

So walk the talk this Advent season.  Dig into scripture or an Advent Devotional book.  There are some on the Missions table in the Fellowship Hall.  Do a specific prayer focus or take part in an Advent picture challenge.  Do whatever you need to do for YOU to connect with God during this season.  Did you hear what I said?   Do whatever you need to do for YOU to connect with God during this season because a baby is coming and He can be your Lord of Lords, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, and Everlasting God.  He proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  He will change your life if you let him.

  • Preached on Sunday, December 4th.

HOPE – Keep Awake.

Mark 13:24-31

24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Keep awake.

That’s one way to summarize the last lecture of Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Pausch delivered his final lecture in September 2007, after he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He showed a love of life and an approach to death that many people have found inspiring, and his lecture has turned into a phenomenon, viewed by millions on television and on the Internet. He went on to write a best-selling book with columnist Jeffrey Zaslow titled The Last Lecture, a book about love, courage and saying goodbye.

On Friday, July 25, 2008, Pausch succumbed to cancer at the age of 47.

He expected maybe 150 people to attend his last lecture. After all, it was a warm September day, and he assumed that people would have better things to do than attend a final lesson from a dying computer science professor in his 40s. He bet a friend $50 that he would never fill the 400-seat auditorium.

Well, Pausch lost that bet. The room was packed, and when he arrived on stage, he received a standing ovation. He motioned the audience of students and colleagues to sit down. “Make me earn it,” he said.

According to columnist Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal (May 3, 2008, and September 20, 2007), Randy hardly mentioned his cancer in the course of his 70-minute lecture. Instead, he took everyone on a rollicking and riveting journey through the lessons of his life. He talked about the importance of childhood dreams, and the stamina needed to overcome obstacles. “Brick walls are there for a reason,” he insisted, showing slides of the rejection letters he had received over the years. “They let us prove how badly we want things.”

He pushed his audience to show patience toward others, saying, “Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.” He celebrated his mentors and his students with an open heart, and revealed the depth of his love for his family.

Giving a nod to his techie background, Randy showed good humor. “I’ve experienced a deathbed conversion,” he said with a smile. “I just bought a Macintosh.” And wanting to show the crowd that he wasn’t ready to kick the bucket, he dropped to the floor and did one-handed push-ups.

Keep awake. That’s what Randy seemed to be saying as he invited his audience to rethink their ambitions and find new ways to look at other people’s flaws and abilities. Keep awake to what is truly important in life. After showing pictures of his childhood bedroom, marked up with mathematical notations he had drawn on the walls, he said, “If your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let ’em do it.”

Keep awake to what really matters. In this case it’s children — not bedroom walls.

After the lecture, Randy’s only plan was to spend his remaining days with his family. But a video of his talk began to spread like a virus across the Web. Randy was soon receiving e-mails from people around the world, telling him that his lecture had inspired them to spend more time with loved ones, quit pitying themselves, and even resist suicidal urges. Terminally ill people were inspired to embrace their own goodbyes, and have fun with every day they had left.

His last lecture really woke people up.

Then Randy gave part of his talk on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and ABC News named him one of its three “Persons of the Year.” People urged him to write a book, which he resisted at first, since he wanted to spend time with his family. But since he needed to exercise, and had to be alone as he rode his bike, he began to use his daily rides as a time to reflect on his lecture, his life and his dreams for his family.

And so, for an hour each day, he would talk to columnist Zaslow through a cell-phone headset, and over the course of 53 long bike rides he shared the insights that became the book called The Last Lecture.

Keep awake. That’s what Randy Pausch says to us, and what Jesus says as well.

The Last Lecture of Jesus Christ, given to the disciples only hours from his execution, is found in today’s reading, Mark 13. Of course it wasn’t a lecture and he wasn’t in a classroom, although, in those days, “classrooms” and “lectures” were rare. Conversations on a walk were more the rule perhaps.

Still, it’s not a stretch to think of these words of Jesus as his last thoughts, his last “lecture” in which he challenges the disciples to keep awake for his second coming, an earth-shaking event which will occur at an undetermined time after his death, resurrection and ascension. He promises that he will return as the Son of Man, coming in clouds with “great power and glory” to gather his people from the ends of the earth, and bring them into his kingdom (Mark 13:26-27). The danger is that the disciples will miss what really matters, distracted by the many assorted demands and details of day-to-day life. So Jesus says to them, “Keep awake” (v. 37).

We face the same challenge as we enter the season of Advent, and begin our march through the wild weeks of decorating, shopping, partying and concert-attending that lie ahead. Jesus is going to be coming to us soon — maybe not in an earth-shaking second coming, but in a personal arrival that’s every bit as important to each one of us. He’ll be coming to speak to us in words of Scripture that have eternal power —“Heaven and earth will pass away,” says Jesus, “but my words will not pass away” (v. 31). He’ll be coming to gather his people into a community that knows his everlasting salvation, a community stretching “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (v. 27). He’ll be coming to see if we are alert and ready for his arrival, living in a way that is focused on his will and his way.

The challenge for us is to “keep awake” — awake for the coming of the Lord during this Advent season.

So how do we do this? We begin by listening carefully to the words of Jesus, words that can be hard to hear in the middle of the noise of the holidays. Randy Pausch took time to leave specific words of advice for his children, saying, “If I could give three words of advice, they would be, ‘Tell the truth.’ If I got three more words, I’d add, ‘All the time.’”

These are good words, but even better are the words of Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). We are called to self-denial, even in this season of rich foods and expensive gifts. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” says Jesus (9:35). Glory and power are to be found in service to others, even as we focus on the fun and festivity of the holidays. “Truly I tell you,” promises Jesus, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:15). This emphasis on childlike faith is an important antidote to the ever-increasing complexity of this season, in which we always seem to schedule more, do more, try more, buy more.

Receive Jesus, with childlike faith. In a very few words, that’s what Advent is all about.

It’s also important for us to remain connected to the community that Jesus intends to gather when he returns. Christian faith is a team sport, not an individual activity, so it’s critically important for us to continue to get together for worship, service, fellowship and fun. We have lots of opportunities to get together for learning, fellowship and service in the coming weeks.

In an over-scheduled holiday season, it’s tempting to skip worship and head to the mall, or choose a special concert over a routine small group meeting.
Remain steadfast, in community. That’s the best position to be in, if you want to meet Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us.

Finally, it’s important for us to be alert and ready for his arrival, living in a way that is in line with Christ’s will and way. “I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable,” says Randy Pausch. “I’m living like I’m dying. But at the same time, I’m very much living like I’m still living.”

Randy was wide awake, with a clear-eyed sense of the inevitable. We should be the same, living every day as though it were our last day on earth, doing our best to trust Jesus and love God and neighbor. Fact is, we don’t know when our lives will end, just as we don’t know the timing of Christ’s second coming. The best approach is to be alert to Christ’s will, living each day with faith and love and a spirit of service.

“What I say to you I say to all,” says Jesus: “Keep awake” (v. 37). These words come to us from the Last Lecture of Jesus Christ, like a message in a bottle that has traveled through the centuries to remind us of what really matters.

How to prepare for Advent? Receive Jesus, with childlike faith. Remain connected, in community. Live every day as though it were your last day on earth, in line with Christ’s will and way.  Rest in hope.

Hope, you say?  Hope.  Unwavering, courageous hope.  An unquenchable and undiminished hope.  Oh we’ll be ready,  as we journey towards the baby in the manger, the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, we’re going to be HOPE sharers.  Each one of us needs to be a little hope beacon.  We live in a hurting world that needs HOPE all the more.  I don’t have to tell y’all this because you know it:  the reality, the statistics, the gluttony of both food and stuff.  It reminds me of a quote by Archbishop Oscar Romero, “I also try to live these four weeks of Advent, this time of preparation for the Nativity, with an attitude of joyful hope and at the same time try to clothe myself in the virtues that the Word of God highlights:  first, poverty and hunger for God, second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”

We’re a people of hope.  The South Carolina motto is Dum spiro spero, “While I breathe, I hope” and the people of Christ should be radiating the hope that comes from knowing that God will never leave nor forsake us.  If we have hope built on nothing less than Christ’s abundant grace, salvation, and righteousness, it will see us through whenever Jesus returns.  We do need to keep alert, living our faith out loud every day, being agents of hope as well as agents of change bringing God’s kingdom to earth.  It can happen and it will happen.  No matter our earthly circumstance.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 says this, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

Whether we’re Black Friday shoppers or had our Christmas presents wrapped in July, we’re grieving and hurting or joyous, high on the mountain top, God goes with us every step of the way, and that is the Good News.  Giving us the hope we need at the time when we most need it.  Even if it doesn’t look like it, even if all seems lost, there’s always HOPE.  May we continue to come toward, to draw near the hope of Jesus as we journey through this Advent season and may we KEEP AWAKE to God’s wonders anew and afresh for us this day!

  • Preached on Sunday, November 27th.

Give Thanks – Christus Victor

One of the doctrine and theology ordination interview questions is to ask about theories of atonement and which one you most liked.  There’s all sorts of theories of atonement that Dr. Thangaraj’s Images of Christ class taught me, like ransom theory ie. Jesus paying the ransom for us, or substatutionary atonement that Jesus’ substituted himself for each of us.  I answered that I really like the Christus Victor theory of at-one-ment.  They’re called theories of atonement because they make us one with Christ.  At-one-ment.  As in Christ is the Victor over all the powers of evil, which hold humanity in bondage. which always reminds me of Christ the King Sunday.  That no matter what crud is happening in life right now, that in the end – Christ is King.  Christ wins.  Christ is the final victor.  The Reign of Christ is unceasing and is perpetual.

So my want of justice and my warrior spirit really likes celebrating Christ the King Sunday.  The texts are usually very imperious with a global reckoning, but there’s a part of me that even though that was my answer in ordination interviews, I don’t really like any kind of king over me.  You know what I mean?  Maybe that’s an American thing.  I’m thinking of the popular musical Hamilton, would you like to have a King George?

Let’s think about some crazy kings – Herod, Henry the crazy 8th, there’s all sorts of them.  You bow down to kings.  You obey kings.  Kings are your Lord and Master.  So this isn’t a halfway commitment, it’s all or nothing.  You don’t just give a flimsy curtsy or you may be beheaded.  You don’t just disobey whenever you feel like it with no consequence.

I’m thinking the part of me that doesn’t like this whole kingship idea is because human kings fail every time.  These kings are not always just, are not always kind, are not always looking out for the best benefit for ALL of their people.

But the King that we celebrate is one that knows and loves each of us equally and unconditionally – not just the rich ones or the pretty ones or the smart ones or the most athletic ones, but all of us.  This theory – this idea of Christ as King – says that Christ is the Victor over all things that bind us or hold us back – sin, sickness, death, doubts, fears, past mistakes, old and new wounds, uncertainty, hopelessness – Christ is the victor over all of the darkness and evil in the world and shines his light perpetual into all the dark nooks and crannies of our hearts and our lives.

This kingship is not just over one people or one country, but over all the world.  This kingship doesn’t just bring hope and good news to one group, but to all people.  It’s a kingship that brings about more hope, joy, and peace than even Camelot could imagine.  That Spirit-breaking-in reality is what the entirety of the whole Jesus event was about, according to Luke’s Gospel.  In this passage, Zechariah’s song is not simply a way to announce the birth of John the Baptist, but rather to proclaim God’s faithfulness, God’s salvation, and God’s peace.

Luke 1:68-79

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The coming of these two children is designed “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” It’s a gift of God. A divine gift. Charisma.

But peace doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It also requires the Human Factor.

Nothing is more essential to effective and inspirational leadership, and you know it when you see it. I watched recently, the movie, The Human Factor, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, and it tells a story that I think we need to hear today.

Eastwood’s new movie tells the story of how Mandela worked to unite his racially and economically divided country in the mid-1990s. Mandela had been elected the country’s first black president in 1994, after spending decades as a leading opponent of apartheid, the white government’s official policy of racial segregation. His opposition to apartheid resulted in 27 years in prison, but in 1990 he was released — and then elected president.

In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup Tournament. Rugby was a white man’s game, and the South African team was entirely white, representing a country that was 80 percent black. It also had a team symbol — a leaping gazelle called a “springbok” — that reminded most black South Africans of the country’s racist history.

Black president. White team. After 27 years in prison, you might think Mandela wouldn’t look favorably on these players.

But you’d be wrong.

Mandela showed up at a press conference wearing a rugby jersey and cap with a springbok on it. He said, “These are our boys now. They may all be white, but they’re our boys, and we must get behind them and support them in this tournament.”

The next day, the Springbok coach took his team to the prison where Mandela had spent nearly three decades of his life behind bars. The coach said, “This is the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. He was kept here for 27 years by the racist policies of our government. We tolerated his imprisonment for all those years, and yet he has backed us publicly. We can’t let him down.”

The tournament opened, and the Springboks played beyond everyone’s expectations. In fact, they made it into the final game. President Mandela was in the stands, wearing a Springbok jersey. During a timeout, he brought a South African children’s choir out of the stands, and they led 65,000 people in the singing of a black African miner’s song.

When the Springboks took the field, they were unstoppable, and they won the World Championship. And for the next 24 hours, whites danced with blacks in the streets of South Africa. For the first time, they saw each other as fellow citizens of a multiracial country.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (vv. 78-79). This line from Zechariah’s prophecy came true in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Tournament. The way of peace appeared, in an inspiring and instructive way.

It required a gift of God — charisma. But also the Human Factor.

We can take this Scripture and story to heart as we prepare for Christ’s coming during this Advent season. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, it’s this time of year to reflect on the rich mixture of divinity and humanity that came to earth in Jesus. It’s also the time to discover what his life can teach us about the way that God can work through each of us.

Jesus shows charisma, the gift of God — but also humanity. After all, he was fully God and fully human. Both are essential for walking in the way of peace. And both can be present in us, as well.

Notice, first of all, that Jesus honors the Human Factor in everyone he meets.  He honors each person’s humanity – all over faults and failures.  “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,” says the letter to the Hebrews. “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (2:11, 17). Jesus does not despise the humanity of the people he meets but honors everyone as a fellow child of God.

So did Mandela, when he said of the Springboks, “They may be all white, but they’re our boys, and we must get behind them.” So did the coach of the South African rugby team, who said that because President Mandela backed them publicly, “We can’t let him down.”

Jesus also knows that divine gifts such as charisma require community. Jesus himself needed John the Baptist to be “the prophet of the Most High” and to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). Zechariah needed a community to hear his Spirit-filled prophecy and respond in faith. President Mandela needed the Springbok coach, the Springbok coach needed Mandela, and both needed a nation of blacks and whites willing to support the team together.

Finally, the combination of charisma and the Human Factor leads us to a new way of living together in the world — what Zechariah calls “the way of peace” (v. 79). Peace isn’t simply escape from the hands of those who hate us, or rescue from our enemies or a period of time in which we’re free from violence. No, peace is a way of life in which we serve God without fear, “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (v. 73).

The way of peace isn’t simply the absence of conflict. Instead, it’s the presence of holiness and righteousness and justice. This means being devoted to God and in a right relationship with God and with each other. Holiness and righteousness and justice — these are the qualities of a life of peace, one marked by harmonious relationships, both human and divine.

Zechariah never made it all the way to the manger, but after baby John was born, after he wrote the name down and made it official, after his experience of the here-and-now promise of God, from where he stood, he started to sing. It wasn’t “Silent Night” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” But Zechariah sang of the love of God, and the breaking in of God’s light, the coming of God’s peace and a mighty Savior born to the house of David. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He sang of the promise of a God who makes a difference.

Clearly, the way of peace isn’t easy to achieve, and life in South Africa has had its share of violence and turmoil since the day of celebration that followed the Springbok victory. But we Christians continue to pursue this way of life. We do it best by following Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

In his honoring of the Human Factor in everyone, we discover how to love and respect each other. In his commitment to community, we learn that our gifts from God are most powerful when they’re shared. And in Jesus’ life of holiness and righteousness and justice, we see an example of what it means to live in right relationship with God and with each other.

Jesus is our mighty Savior, the one and only Son of God. But as unique as he is, he reaches out to us and makes a connection through the Human Factor, which he shares with everyone on earth — young and old, male and female, black and white, American and South African.  He loves us all.  He’s reaching for us all.  He has grace for us all.  Jesus is behind us and supporting us, as we walk the way of peace.

Three older ladies were discussing the travails of getting older.

One said, “Sometimes I catch myself with a jar of mayonnaise in my hand in front of the refrigerator and can’t remember whether I need to put it away, or start making a sandwich.”

The second lady chimed in, “Yes, sometimes I find myself on the landing of the stairs and can’t remember whether I was on my way up or on my way down.”

The third one responded, “Well, I’m glad I don’t have that problem; knock on wood,” as she rapped her knuckles on the table, then told them, “That must be the door, I’ll get it!”

You know some of the ways that make for peace.  At least some.  So when you’re with your family, choose peace.  When the topic of football comes up with rivalry Saturday around the corner, choose peace.  When any politics comes up, choose peace.  The Holy Spirit will be with you as we walk the way of peace.

  • Preached at Point Hope UMC on Christ the King Sunday November 20th, 2016

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

James 1:17 ESV

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Psalm 107:1 ESV

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!

Ephesians 5:20 ESV

Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Colossians 3:15-17 ESV

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Philippians 4:6 ESV

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

On this Veteran’s Sunday, we all have things for which we are thankful.  These are just a few passages of scripture that encourage us to give thanks.  In particular, we are to be thankful in all circumstances.  Being far away from home for Thanksgiving gives us a taste of that.  I found these stories from the military during World War II.

Cliff Sampson of Plymouth, US Navy 1942-1945: “My first military Thanksgiving was in 1942 at Great Lakes. We had a big mess hall and it was a typical Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the fixings, apple pie and mince pie. They tried to make it special and, of course, everybody was hepped on the war. Just being a little recruit, you didn’t have much to say about it anyhow, you just did what they told you and ate what they gave you. But it was good food, I can’t complain. Some of the food probably was better than a lot of people ever had before they were in the service. Some people came from poverty… “Thanksgiving 1945 I was home in Plymouth with my family and my wife. We were getting ready to settle down and I was back to work, running the store again. It was a great feeling to be home, after being blown up on a ship in July (the USS YMS 84 yard mind sweeper was blown up 3 July 1945, Cliff Sampson received the Purple Heart) and then in November, I’m out of the service and the war is over. I feel sorry for all those that didn’t come back. It was a great experience, but it’s too bad for those who had to leave us. They fought for a great cause.”

Bill Shepard of Plymouth, 102 Infantry Division (“Ozark Division”), U.S. Army, stationed in Ohio, Germany and Wales: “The Armed Forces were absolutely adamant about getting the troops a Thanksgiving dinner, all over the world, no matter who you were or what you were doing. Whether it was on the front lines THANKSGIVING “OVER THERE” *** World War Two Voices from the Front or in a big fort like Sam Houston in San Antonio, they always made sure that the Armed Forces got a Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas meals were also somewhat like that, but I remember the Thanksgiving dinners — there were always turkeys and pies and everything you would have at home. The food was often cold, if you were in the field (Thanksgiving Day 1944, the Ozark Division had just broken through the Siegfried Line at Aachen), but it was Thanksgiving.”

Stanley Collins, US Navy: “I was on submarine duty in the Pacific in the year 1943. We were in the area off the cost of the Philippines. I remember having a complete turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. While the turkeys were cooking, the submarine took a dive. We went down too steeply and the turkeys fell out of the oven onto the deck. The cook picked them up and put them back into the oven — and we ate them, regardless of what may have gotten on them as a result of their fall. That meal was so good!”

Ervin Schroeder, 77th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion, I Company, US Army: “On Thanksgiving Day, we made our landing on Leyte Island in the Philippines very early in the morning. We therefore missed our dinner aboard ship. Somewhere down the beach from where we landed, the Navy sent us ham and cheese sandwiches. My buddy happened to get one of the sandwiches and brought it back to our area. I was complaining to him for not bringing one back for me when he started to have stomach cramps… At this point, I shook his hand and thanked him for not bringing me a sandwich.”

Ed Campbell, US Marine Corps, 1943-1945, had spent 3 different Thanksgivings in service.  He says this about the last one.  “The third and last Thanksgiving (1945), I landed in Boston on Thanksgiving Day… I walked around the city for a little bit, with joy in being immersed in the quietness of Boston — it was around 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning. I decided I would take a taxi home to Quincy. I had enough money — my discharge money — so I was able to pay for a cab to take me home in style. Of course, we had a great Thanksgiving. My mother had all the relatives and old friends there — I had called her to say that I would be home on Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful day to come home. It was literally the first day of the rest of my life.”

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever.  Give thanks always and for everything.  Sing songs of thanks and whatever you do, in word or deed, give thanks to God for Jesus.  Do not worry, but pray and give thanks.  Give thanks in ALL circumstances.  We’re told all throughout the Bible to give thanks.  And not just in the good and easy times, but in the hard, trying times as well.

Stuart, Mike’s cousin, wrote this about his Granddad for the funeral.

“In a book that Tom Brokaw authored, he labeled the generation that fought in and supported our country during WWII as the greatest generation that ever lived. He went on to describe this group of people as the greatest generation that any society ever produced; not only for their efforts winning the war, but for the way they lived their lives.  I am sure everyone here has known someone who was a part of this generation and can easily testify to their godly and selfless character and how true Tom Brokaw’s characterization is.

I can certainly do this in the case of my grandfather.  Bob Jeter joined the Marine Corps when he was 17 years old. He fought in the critically important Battle of Iwo Jima and was one of the few soldiers to survive. During the battle one of his friends was buried alive on the shores of the beach during a shelling.  My grandfather saved his life by quickly digging him up and getting him to safety.  They remained best friends for the rest of their lives. He was awarded three purple hearts for his time in the Marine Corps. After being discharged, he went to work for McKesson Drug as a worker in the warehouse.  He got this job by using the GI Bill. Over the course of his career, he worked his way up to the position of vice president of McKesson Drug.

These are obviously all things to be proud of, but the accomplishment Bob Jeter was most proud of was the fact he and his wife of 60 plus years, Helen Jeter, raised a Christian family. My uncle overheard him say this on the golf course in response to a question about 15 years ago.

Everything my grandfather did was centered on Christ. He was a dedicated member of this church for 40 plus years. He served at Brush Hill as an elder, Sunday School teacher and in many other roles. He, along with my grandmother, were very actively involved in numerous ministries in East Nashville over the course of their lives. He began each day of his life with prayer and scripture reading and ended it in the same way.

It is truly a blessing if you have ever had anyone in your life who you can to to for advice on anything that is on your heart and know that you will receive profound, thoughtful, wise guidance in return.  Because of the relationship I had with my grandfather, Bob Jeter, I knew someone like this.”

He wrote this letter to his family.

Dear All,

I suppose you know by now that I am on Iwo Jima, and best of all I am still alright.

 

I have had several close ones, but the good Lord seemed to want me to stay in good shape a little longer.

There isn’t much I can say, or they’ll let me say, except that I am alright, and I intend to stay that way.

I’ll write more when I have more time and something to say.

I still haven’t seen Howard but I passed his island.

Your loving son,

Bob

Pfc Robert E. Jeter

Written March 3, 1945.  He was wounded (3rd time) and evacuated on March 12.  One day after his 20th birthday.  He’s the one who Enoch mentioned in last week’s children sermon who had the purple hearts.  When granddad was at Maybelle Carter, an assisted living facility, his neighbor would make stuffed teddy bears.  That was one of the things Enoch took with him when we had to evacuate for the hurricane because as he said last week, it reminds him of his grandfather and he indeed was a great man.

I have hope for our country.  At Girl State I loved to sing the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” because when we sang the part “And I gladly stand up” we would stand up.  Close to 600 high school juniors.  It wouldn’t have the same impact if I did it alone.  We have to do it together.  “And I gladly stand up NEXT TO YOU.”  We have to be united as a country and a nation under God.  We won’t survive if we don’t.  We’ve become so insular, so jaded, such experts on the way we see the world, that we don’t celebrate America for what it is.  A glorious melting pot of neighbors, of brothers and sisters, of fathers and mothers, of real people.  I’ve always believed that the way to Christ is in relationship.  Our personal relationship and our communal relationship.  We personally need to dig into the Word, fast and pray, and cultivate and tune in to the True Vine, but we also need to live it out, forming relationships with our neighbors, the person we see every week at the coffee shop and we always wonder if we should strike up a conversation, the frazzled mother at the grocery store holding on to her squirming children while she drops her groceries.  Be the change you want to see in the world.  AND give thanks for all that you have been given.  For example, your house, your food, your job, your freedom, this great country.  I challenge you to see and name three things for which you are thankful at the end of every night.  Do it for the month of November and tell me what happens.  My prayer and hope is that you will ignite within you a Spirit of Gratitude.

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We recognized our veterans at our special service and played this song and invited them to come forward for every branch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_I5BqvpkwmA