Emmanuel Changes Us

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

These are familiar words that we often here at a Christmas service.  These are some of my favorite words of the Bible.  You see, we all have walked in deep darkness, the color of ink, and we have felt the light of Christ pierce that darkness.  Our darkness.  The world’s darkness.  An in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the form of the most vulnerable thing on Earth, a baby, who came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free of our societal, communal, and personal bondage.  As it is written in Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

The Gospel of John talks about this Incarnate Light.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This is God’s Incarnate Light and it’s available for each of us.  No one is separated from the love of God, and Bobbi’s right, it’s a “long-haul love.”  We love even when it’s difficult, even when it’s costly, even when hatred is spewed and it sadly has become the norm.  We’re called to be the light of Christ and, as Robert Louis Stevenson says, “to punch holes in the darkness.”

Later on in John 1, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” That brings us to our second scripture this morning from Matthew 1:22-23, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

As we’ve gotten ready for the coming of God in the form of a baby—a God who dwells among us and with us.  We also get ready for the second coming of our savior—a time when there is good news and great joy for ALL people.  This is good news not just for the pretty ones or smart ones or the ones lucky enough to be born on the right side of the tracks or in the wealthy country, but for all of God’s children.

I think of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, the angels – a mix of folks.  I think of the words of the prophet—to look to the star and that there is One who is coming who is beyond our imagining.  This story is not just one of familiar and beautiful manger scenes and it’s certainly not just a good children’s story.  These were trying times, much like today, and not even the innocent were safe, as children began to lose their lives as Herod began his search for the Christ child.

The context was not much better than the Hunger Games when Jesus arrived.  Suzanne Collins does an amazing job bringing this post-apocalyptic world to life.  She got the idea from flipping through channels on her television and seeing on one channel a reality tv competition and on the next channel war footage.  In Bethlehem they were under Roman occupation, not knowing what was going to be demanded of them next—their money, their children, their lives.  For some of us, we relate to some of these horrors.  There are hard things that we see every day whether it be children going without food or the loss of a friend or loved one or the loss of one’s job or home or when we watch the news and see the latest terrorist attacks or the horrific images of Aleppo.  Perhaps the most subversive and daring thing as we watch these images is still believe in the hope of Christmas.  Even when the night seems darkest, even when all seems lost; there’s hope in this beautiful child setting the world upside down and bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

We take comfort in what we are told very clearly, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord and has name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace…”  This Prince of Peace can give us that peace that transcends all understanding whether it be as we are awaiting medical results, college acceptances, grieving lost loved ones, wondering how we will pay the bills, job changes, life decisions, no matter what.

This kind of peace can transform the world.  Nelson Mandela, said “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”  We give others the courage to do the same.  Not just people in this place, in this community, or in this land—but all the world.  It doesn’t end in Advent.  I want us to choose joy. Share hope. Live peace. Be love. We celebrate the coming of the baby, may we not be scared to follow the way of the man.

My hope over the next few days is we will take time, breathe and take in what it means to be a people who believe in this Emmanuel, a people who believe and live out this peace.  As Frederick Buechner writes, “”If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

You know we can’t do any of this on our own, but through Christ’s power within us, we can do all things.  One of the verses to Go Tell it On the Mountain, is “When I was a seeker/ I sought both night and day/ I asked the Lord to help me/ And he showed me the way. Don’t forget that you’re human.  It’s okay to have a melt down and not do everything perfectly.  Just don’t unpack and live there.  Cry it out and then refocus on where God is leading you.  Because the world needs you.  Jesus will show you every step of the way.  He will light your path.  The world needs the light of Jesus reflecting in us, light punching the darkness, light brought down to earth.  The world needs you to show up – in person – just like Christ did that first Christmas.  It’s radical incarnational love.  Love came down on Christmas.  Amen.

 

 

Christmas Eve Reflection

 

Does anyone feel like we need this in-breaking of the kingdom of God a little more this year?  Simply saying that there’s suffering in the world, we’re a country that’s more viciously divided albeit in my short life time, and the community-wide, familial, and personal tumult is not enough.  Simply acknowledging this reality is not enough.  Frankly, because that attitude breeds complacency and apathy.  We need to be urgently praying and seeking God’s will in the big and small ways so we can bring peace, joy, love and hope to the world, in our communities, and within our own hearts.

A dear friend recently shared this quote with me.  It’s from Bobbi Patterson, long-time faculty at Emory University’s Department of Religion.  “As this darkening grows drawing us closer to a spark of incarnate light generating long-haul love.”  I love that.  I’ve been meditating on it since she sent it to me.  You see, we expect that with darkness, grief, sadness, despair, suffering, a greater darkness, but the opposite is true.  That’s when we cling to that spark of incarnate light.  That’s what Advent is all about.  An in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the form of the most vulnerable thing on Earth, a baby, who came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free of our societal, communal, and personal bondage.  As it is written in Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

May you draw closer to God’s Incarnate Light.  It’s available for each of us.  No one is separated from the love of God, and Bobbi’s right, it’s a “long-haul love.”  We love even when it’s difficult, even when it’s costly, even when hatred is spewed.  We’re called to be the light of Christ and, as Robert Louis Stevenson says, “to punch holes in the darkness.”  Gator Wesley always does an Early Christmas Eve service and I prefer not to sing the traditional “Silent Night” choosing instead “Joy to the World.”  I love how the entire service is dark and somber and then it transitions with that last hymn, each person has his or her own light and when all of the candles are lit, it’s definitely effervescent light.  May we make him room; the light of Christ radiating out of each of us and shining in the world.  Come Lord Jesus, Come.

candle

Joy to The world! the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let ev’ry heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonder wonders of His love

December 26th anticipating the New Year

(Post was written for a newsletter on December 26th)

The 12 Days of Christmas leading towards Epiphany continue on but already it feels like the season is beginning to pass as the debate begins on when to take down decorations and as new “things” have found their way into our homes.  Questions swirl in the mind both wondering – How are we going to fit all these toys in this house? And thankful – How good does it feel to finally get new kitchen towels after 8 years of marriage?  It feels good by the way.  This season is definitely a time to catch up with friends and family whether through visits, calls, or Christmas cards, but for me it also seems to be a time of reflection, taking stock, or working on things that might have slipped my attention during a busy semester.

I’m sitting here eating a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa as I type this and I’m thinking how ironic it is to talk at all about looking ahead and resolutions and New Year’s as I’m staring down at a bowl of Christmas candy.  So what will your resolutions be this year?  Do you do them?  I had a student a couple years ago that seriously did them and wrote them down and taped them up beside her computer.  Go her!  I’ve thought about it before and I guess have attempted a time or to, but I was much better at keeping “resolutions” while in an accountability group with some peers in college or as a Lenten practice.  In my mind why do we wait til certain times of the year to start making a change in our life?  Take for example me eating this bowl full of candy.  I can tell myself, hey – you better eat it now because come January 1st you’re not going to do this anymore.  Or I can just say, hey – if you eat more than one of those chocolate Santa’s you’re going to have a stomach ache and by the way – why are you always eating so much chocolate?  Maybe you should get more sleep or should do a little exercise.

I know, I know.  Enough with the inner monologue.  The thing about the Christian walk is that we don’t just evaluate and assess our lives once or twice a year.  We’re not just counted as naughty or nice once a year either.  This is a walk, a journey, and something that often takes some perseverance, faith and a whole lot of grace.   Sometimes we’re discouraged.  Sometimes we’ve had enough.  Sometimes it’s been a bad day, a bad week, a bad month, a bad year.  Sometimes we don’t know how we’ll pick up the pieces or where to begin.  But begin we will with the love and grace of God that is always sufficient if we but ask.

 I am reminded of the movie, The Sound of Music, another holiday favorite that I love.  When Maria comes back to the abbey not quite knowing what to do, and Mother Superior says, “Our abbey is not to be used as an escape.  What is it you can’t face?  You must find out.  You must go back.  Maria, these walls were not built to shut out problems.  You have to face them.  You have to live the life you were born to live.”  With the help of God we can face both the small and the most humungous of bumps in the road.  In this season of ponderings may we take a deep, hard look at the lives we are living and may we live them more abundantly and more hopefully in the love of Christ.  May we see the challenges of our days as opportunities to grow and learn.  May we know that making a change – creating a new habit or letting go of one – is not something that’s once a year, but we can keep climbing that mountain with a Savior that walks with us every day.  Listen to wonderful Mother Superior.  Listen to the Spirit of God alive and speaking to your heart.

“Climb Every Mountain”

Climb every mountain,

Search high and low,

Follow every byway,

Every path you know.

Climb every mountain,

Ford every stream,

Follow every rainbow,

‘Till you find your dream.

A dream that will need

All the love you can give,

Every day of your life

For as long as you live.

Climb every mountain,

Ford every stream,

Follow every rainbow,

Till you find your dream

From the Winter Wesley Newsletter

(Written on December 9th for the Winthrop Wesley Winter newsletter)

I have been struck this Advent season with contrasts and contradictions.  I listen or try to escape from Christmas music on the radio this time of year and its frequently a sharp contrast to everything I see around me whether driving, in lines, trying to cross things off the gift, party, and card lists, and in all the “stuff” that goes into the preparations of this season.

Yes, Advent is that season of preparation, but not  necessarily the preparations we make.  This is a preparation that’s not just about the everyday hustle and bustle but also about getting ready for something completely out of this world—something revolutionary, new, an in-breaking of the kingdom of God.  We get ready for the coming of God in the form of a baby—a God who dwells among us and with us.  But we also get ready for the second coming of our savior—a time when there is good news and great joy for ALL people.  This is good news not just for the pretty ones or smart ones or the ones lucky enough to be born on the right side of the tracks or in the wealthy country, but for all of God’s children.

I think of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, the prophets  – a mix of folks.  I think about some of the sights and sounds we saw at Journey to Bethlehem.  I think of the words of the prophet—to look to the star and that there is One who is coming who is beyond our imagining.  This story is not just one of familiar and beautiful manger scenes and it’s certainly not just a good children’s story.  These were trying times and people were being taxed and children lost lives as Herod began his search for the Christ child.

A couple weeks ago I began reading the series The Hunger Games.  Excellent adolescent literature so perfect for my brain at the end of a semester.  Suzanne Collins does an amazing job bringing this post-apocalyptic world to life.  She got the idea from flipping through channels on her television and seeing on one channel a reality tv competition and on the next footage of the Iraq war.  Her stories are not for the faint of heart.  They are violent and graphic and terrifying.  It’s not a pretty picture of people sending their children off to fight to the death.  See—I told you not a rosy colored story.

But that’s not much different from the context Jesus arrived in.  Here these people were under Roman control, not knowing what was going to be demanded of them next—their money, their children, their lives.  The thing about the books—there’s no savior at the end.  For some of us, we relate to some of these horrors.  There are hard things that we see everyday whether it be a fifth grader committing suicide or children going without food or the loss of a friend or loved one or the loss of one’s job or home.

For some this isn’t just a hustling and bustling time of year, but it’s a painful time.  That’s there.  That’s part of the story.  Pain and hurt and fear are there.  But there’s also this thing that I can describe only as wonder.  The thing about this season is that as much as I think my heart is hardened or as much as I’ve blocked out the music since it’s started playing after Halloween this year or as much as I feel caught up in finishing the semester and trying to keep the kids from going crazy waiting for Santa—the wonder of Christmas inevitably sneaks up.

You see, it’s not about all these things or all this chaos.  But it’s also not just about our current circumstance.  Because we are told very clearly, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people .  For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord and has name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace…”  This Prince of Peace can give us that peace that transcends all understanding whether it be as we are awaiting grades or exam results, health questions, job changes, or life decisions.

And this kind of peace can transform the world.  Not just people in this place, in this community, or in this land—but all the world.  My hope over this Christmas break is that in the midst of everything as students are catching up on sleep and connecting with family and friends and as all of us frantically try to make it through, that we can find time to stop and breathe and take in what it means to be a people who believe in this Emmanuel, a people who believe and live out this peace.

Merry Christmas to all of you and much love, peace, and blessings!