The intro....

I've created this blog as a simple way of posting my sermons as I write them and possibly speak them. (occasionally I'll have recordings of the preaching of the sermon) I won't have sermons to preach every Sunday because I'm not going to write sermons that I don't have to preach, but I'll post what I do preach. Feel free to post comments/criticisms, I'm no pro and feedback is a great way to get better.


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!
My Christmas gift from the Revised Common Lectionary Fairy this year was that I had to preach this sermon on Christmas Day.  The reason that was kind of a bummer is that the text for this Sunday was Matthew 2:13-23, and that's a bummer because, as you can see if you go read it, it's not a very happy text. As I was researching this text, and talking to other Pastors I found that a lot of people don't preach on this text when it comes up on Christmas. They just pick a different one or preach on something else. I decided to take on the challenge though and this is what I came up with:

I would like to begin my time up here at the pulpit today with a story. I thought that would be appropriate because it is Christmas after-all and stories are so much a part of our Christmas traditions. We’ve got books like “Twas the night before Christmas”, and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, movies like “Christmas Vacation”, “A Christmas Story”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Elf”… any of the billion versions of “A Christmas Carol” (the muppet version is my Christmas Carol of choice), and how often at Christmas time do we sit around with our families, after the presents are open and while the food is digesting and tell stories of all the years gone by, the funny stories and tender moments that have defined all the years leading up to this one.

Well this is a story about a boy. He was a pretty average boy: he liked to run and play outside and he also liked to play plenty of video games, he liked to watch football with his Dad and watch baseball with his Mom and he absolutely loved Christmas time. Every year, sometime in November it would occur to this little boy that Christmas time wasn’t so far away, that the air was starting to get colder with that little bite to it, maybe it would snow a time or two, the radio stations slowly started increasing their frequency of Christmas songs, the stores were starting to get more and more full of red and green, gold and silver, bells, stars, candles, reindeer, Santas, and even the occasional Baby Jesus in Mary’s arms, and of course they started lighting the Advent wreath at church.

All of these were the signs that Christmas was coming and they were reasons for the boy to get more and more excited… because he loved Christmas. When he was very young he loved Christmas for all the presents… but then he started to remember that only the very special cookies were baked at Christmas time, and food was always a little more special, and his grandparents came into town, and music was always playing in the house. And then as he got older still he noticed that often people were nicer around Christmas time… they would wish each other Merry Christmas when during other times of the year they would hardly even look at each other, and this boy also learned to enjoy the peacefulness of the season: of sitting by the tree when all the other lights were off and soft music was playing somewhere in the background.

So yes this boy really loved Christmas. And he still does, but one year… something terrible happened… in the middle of all the excitement leading up to Christmas one year, somebody told this boy that he was going to have to preach a sermon on Christmas day and the day after Christmas about Herod’s murder of the little children and Jesus being forced to flee to Egypt.

So… in case you haven’t figured it out yet… I’m doing that thing where I pretend to tell a story about somebody else but really it’s a story about me. …. I know it’s a corny device, and I’m sorry… but It’s true…. I am the little boy….and I really do love Christmas. It’s such a wonderful time of year… It’s Idyllic, it’s a time for joy, peace, love and hope; all such positive and wonderful emotions, and even now as a, mostly, grown man, I love the holiday season. But this year I didn’t get to enjoy the joy quite as much because this past week I have been obsessed with this story about Herod ordering a bunch of little boys to be executed, murdered really… all because he’s afraid of this little baby Jesus.

I have been obsessed with it because it’s just not the kind of story that we expect or want, AT ALL, for Christmas, we don’t want to think about this kind of awful stuff happening when we’re basking in the glow of the halo around the Little Baby Jesus’ head. I have been obsessed because Christmas is supposed to be all cozy and warm and wonderful, not bleak and filled with the grief of even one lost child, let alone an entire generation of Bethlehem.

But see… what happens when I’m obsessing about a gospel text is that things start creeping into my head and little things start happening and they make me think about this particular Gospel even though they would just be random meaningless thoughts and events if I wasn’t in the middle of planning a sermon. One of the things that happened is that, as I was driving in my car, the song “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on the radio… and it was a version with the original lyrics: the “In a year we all will be together…. Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow”

Now… I don’t know if you’ve ever really listened to that song but sometime you should, and while you’re at it you should really listen to “I’ll be home for Christmas” …. And there’s a couple others out there too. Like, “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters which was a holiday mainstay at our house growing up. I say that you should listen to them because I think you’ll be surprised to notice, if you haven’t before, that they’re kind of sad songs. All three of the songs that I mentioned are about being apart from your loved ones… and these three aren’t the only ones in the Christmas rotation that have a bit of a bit of sadness in them. It seems as though, when people aren’t singing about Jesus as a conquering king, they’re often singing about the joy of Christmas that is tempered by the realities of the world that we live in. And they are beautiful songs to be sure but there’s a sort of melancholy in these songs and in a lot of our Christmas Music, and even in the triumphant and glorious songs of the arrival of a conquering king there is an implicit admission that we’re the kind of people living in the kind of world where we need a conquering king.

And what really got me thinking and obsessing is that there must be a reason for our songs to be this way. Music is art and art tends to show us a little bit about ourselves. So if our Christmas songs have some sadness in them there must be some sadness. But that doesn’t really fit with my childhood picture of Christmas. I have liked Christmas my whole life because of the happiness, and even though there were different things making me happy, whether they were presents, or cookies, or music, or family, or friendliness, or enjoying the first Christmas morning with my lovely wife, there was still the persistent feeling that Christmas is happy.

But here’s the rub… if Christmas is happy, and Christmas makes everything all better. Why do we read today about these terrible events? And why do we still need to have our beautifully sad Christmas music.

Well the ugly truth is…. That Christmas doesn’t fix everything. It makes us feel better for a little while and helps us to remember the good in the world but it doesn’t make all our troubles go away. And the real bummer is that no matter how badly we want Christmas to take away all the evil in the world… for Good… that just isn’t how it works. That kind of Christmas is the one that John the Baptist was waiting for. Remember a couple of weeks ago, we were in the middle of Advent and JTB, (that’s John the Baptist) asked if Jesus was really the Messiah. “Are you the one that is to come, or should we wait for another?” John wanted Christmas to take all the evil away, that’s why he quotes Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.” But that isn’t the way Jesus arrived, Jesus showed up as an infant, just like we all do and he didn’t conquer anybody. That isn’t how Christmas works.

Realizing this is… unpleasant at best… but when you do you have three options the first is to just throw Christmas out the window and go live in a cabin out in the woods because there’s no hope (let’s just go ahead and throw that one out immediately) the second option we have is to pretend that Christmas does make everything all better and to ignore, if only for a day, all the problems that are still out in the world, this is the option that we might see some people taking, for example that line in “Have yourself a Merry little Christmas” that goes: “Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow….” Get’s changed to: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” There’s just a slight difference in mood there. And you know there really isn’t anything wrong with that change. It works for some people to just focus on that triumphant line, it may work for some of you, and you may be just as happy to ignore the sadness that Christmas doesn’t take away.

But there’s still sadness out there and for some of us it doesn’t work to just ignore it. We might try to, but it just comes creeping back in all at once or a little bit at a time, and if we don’t have a better understanding of Christmas we might get confused and frustrated…. And sad…. And obsessed.

I told you earlier that I was obsessing about this… about the sadness that is still in the world and about the fact that our Christmas story for today is about infanticide. And then remember I said that two things happened while I was obsessing: the first was about the songs, and the second is where we get our good news and our hope for today. Somebody else who was thinking about this same Gospel text asked me “What good is Christmas?” That’s a fair question right? And really it’s the same question I was asking, I just hadn’t stated it so clearly. If Christmas doesn’t fix everything, well then about Christmas makes me happy? In light of everything that still goes on in the world and in light of this terrible crime that is committed by Herod today, and in light of the fact that Jesus and Mary and Joseph had to run for his life, and then couldn’t even come back to their home but had to live in a different part of Israel, what should make us happy about Christmas?

Well… I will first say this… we SHOULD be happy about Christmas…. Christmas is every bit as glorious and triumphant of a day as you and I always thought it was. It may not be because Christmas makes all the evil go away, but that’s not what Christmas promised to do. Christmas only every promised us the little baby Jesus, but before you go thinking that there’s any reason for disappointment let’s talk about what that means.

When Jesus was born on that first Christmas… something really truly remarkable happened. God became absolutely and fully a part of this world. God made a sort of bridge connecting this world of ours with God. That’s all a bit of theological magic that means something very simple. It means that God did not give up on us. It means that everything that ever happened to you is a part of something because God chose to make this world part of God and to make himself part of this world. So whenever you feel sad and alone, or afraid, or angry, or happy, or even just OK it is all a part of a world that is intimately connected with its creator.
You are not feeling anything in isolation, you are a part of something much bigger than yourself and that means that there is something much bigger than all those feelings of sadness. Jesus was the whole universe, all of creation, in one man… and he became forever a part of this world because he was born into it just like the rest of us. And there may not be a purpose for the evil in the world and we may not be able to find a greater good out of the evil, but if God was so invested in this that He was willing to become that invested in us than we can believe with absolute certainty that our lives are not just some tragic accident, lived alone.
So remember this tonight when the stars are out. Walk outside… look up into the depths of the night, find the moon or a star and watch it… And remember that God came into the world on this Christmas day as a human just like any of us, and remember that because of that, you are a part of that universe and you are connected to it just as it is part of you. And as long we still have that promise of Christmas we will always have a reason to hope and a reason to be happy.
So please….remember that Jesus has been born so that you will never have to suffer or rejoice alone… and most of all “Have yourself a merry little Christmas…” From now until “all our trouble are miles away…”

Advent Wednesdays

This sermon was a lot of fun.  I got the chance to preach at one of the Wednesday evening Advent services at my wife's church, Desert Cross Lutheran in Tempe.  It was really great to lead worship together.

The text for this little sermonette was Isaiah 40:3-9 (you can click on that to read those verses online)
Also you should know that I was holding an Apple in my hand as I was preaching this.

I have something here in my hand… and it is something that I’m sure you recognize. You’ve seen one just like this before, you’ve probably tasted one, smelled one, held one in you hand. You probably also have a word for this thing…. Don’t you. Even now as I’m talking to you that word is floating around in your head… it is at the tip of your tongue and it is projected on that screen just behind your eyes. You can see that word because you know it so well and, to you, and to me, this thing in my hand does not exist without that word. The word is the thing. The word is APPLE and this thing IS an Apple.
But I want you to try for a minute to think of this thing without the word. I want you to look at it and just know what it is without using the word. When I ask myself to do this… my reaction is to think of all the other words that describe this thing. So…. If I can’t use its name, I’ll use its characteristics. Words like red, round, smooth, sweet, juicy. Now at least with all of these words I can build a pretty good picture of this thing and I can even tell someone else what it would be like… so much so that they might even be able to identify it as an Apple.
But what if I ask you to think about this Apple without the word Apple and now without the words round and red and sweet and smooth. What if I just ask you to think about this thing without using words at all. It’s not very easy is it? To begin with, this is a hard thing to even wrap our head around: “what does it even mean to think about this apple without using words?” and then even if you can go along with it, it’s really hard to find meaning without using these words. Now think about how hard it would be to think about something less concrete without using words…. Something like hope, or love, or peace?
You see, a word is not just a collection of letters that makes it easier for us to communicate… a word is a symbol. It is a way that we can make meaning from some concept that is outside of ourselves. So we see the roundness of this Apple and we can understand it because of the word round…. We taste the juiciness of it and we understand it because of the word juicy. In this same way we can talk about feelings like hope and love because we have these words to identify them, and relate to them, and remember when we felt them.
Now I want you to go back with me to that feeling when I told you to try not to use any words…. Imagine that frustration and difficulty. It is more than a little upsetting to have these concepts and be able to communicate them. Now imagine if you had never been taught any language, imagine the desolation that your life would be if you had no way of giving any meaning to things like sweet, soft, smooth… love, peace, hope… I will tell you that the desolation would be very deep indeed. You see without your sense of meaning and significance the world is a very plain and simple place…. It is nothing more than images of hot and cold, dark and light, rock and ice, green, red, blue, yellow…. And you would be nothing more than a casual observer just perceiving the world around you and watching it pass by.
The book of Isaiah from which we read tonight is a book about a prophet speaking to God’s people… Last week you may remember that Valerie told you that Isaiah is a ‘prophet’ not because he foretells the future but because he points a people to the ways that God is active in the world. So then we have a prophet speaking to a whole community of people who are in exile and telling them about the ways that God is speaking to them and acting in their lives.. They are living their lives in persecution and oppression because they have been removed from their homes and their homeland and are in the midst of the despair and desolation and their prophet is speaking words of hope to them.
Okay… so do you remember all that stuff about words and meaning? Now when I asked you to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without those words, you may have pictured the world that I described which is a world of desolation and a world removed from meaning. This is in many ways similar to the life of exile, it is a life lived apart from that which gives your life meaning. For the people of Israel their land and their temple was the way that they had understand their life to have meaning and importance. Without that they were lost and directionless.
And into that darkness and into that desolation Isaiah speaks these Words. They are WORDS. Words of comfort and WORDS of hope, and these WORDS have the power to give comfort and to give hope because they are the WORDS of God. They are the words that speak hope and comfort and identify that it is God that is speaking hope and comfort to these people.
In this wilderness of desolation and despair when all hope and meaning is lost. God says the WORD of the Lord will stand forever. And even though the things of this world fade and wither, like the Grass and the Flower, the Word of God endures.
And so here in on our Advent this night… as we reach out to God in the midst of our pain and sadness, when our suffering and sickness leave us feeling as though we are alone in the wilderness… We remember that into that wilderness the way of the Lord is prepared. The WORD of the Lord is spoken into our stark silence and we are again reminded that God is coming a little bit at a time, day by day, to bring meaning, and value, and joy and hope to our lives. And we remember in the Dark night… that in the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God and the WORD was God… and as every word we speak brings meaning into our Chaotic world…. Into this dark night a baby is born….