I was the assistant at St. Thaddeus in Aiken, SC when I first was ordained as a priest. Assistants have a job description which is basically to do whatever the rector does not want to do. He asked me to attend the first meeting of a new venture in the community which was to begin a soup kitchen in Aiken. I, with several other ministers from the area, came and listened to the proposal. It was simple. The community would feed the homeless. Each church would take part. Homeless people would come and join in a service and after a sermon they would be allowed to eat a meal.
I left that meeting angry but was not sure why. We would be feeding the homeless, which must be a good thing. But after a while I realized why I was angry. For them to eat they would be required to hear a sermon and sit through a service. Hungry people, smelling food which had been prepared, would be required to sit for 30 to 45 minutes before they could eat. I think I realized at that point that the Gospel would be proclaimed when they ate. Maybe I was the only one to realize the Gospel for homeless hungry people was the food on the plate. The Good News of Jesus Christ would be lived out. The Gospel, proclaimed in the vernacular for hungry people was food.
Just a few minutes ago you heard the Gospel in a very different way. The Gospel was proclaimed in several languages. I can only imagine what it must have been like on that first Sunday as the church began. The disciples, empowered by God’s Spirit, flung open the doors. Their fear gone they stepped out and began to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. And when they did everyone understood. No matter where you came from, know this, the Good news was for you. The Gospel that day was proclaimed in the vernacular.
Speaking in tongues was about telling the Good News in a way that the person who was hearing would understand.
I don’t think it should be any different today. We are to proclaim the love of God in a way that others can not only hear but understand. If a person is homeless, give them a place to stay. If a person is cold, give them a coat. If is person is hungry, give them something to eat.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is the Good News proclaimed to a hurting world; God’s love shared. It is no different for us. We have a mission. The mission is defined by where we are and who needs God’s love shared. God’s mission for us is defined by where we are and the people and needs around us.
We come this day to give thanks for the church, which God has given us to proclaim the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Today is the church’s birthday and we celebrate the transforming Spirit which transforms us into His body. God’s Spirit that first Pentecost changed those whom it touched and they were empowered to proclaim the Good News. It is no different today. The Holy Spirit is what we seek to also be empowered to become His church.
We live in a world which understands self-promotion. We live in a world which is fueled by the notion that somehow if we can do enough, or learn enough, we can succeed. But Pentecost is about a very different kind of understanding. Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit. It is about the truth that we can and never will be able to will ourselves to succeed, at least not in our relationship with God. We will not and cannot learn enough or do enough to complete that relationship. As a church, we cannot do as much to help the victims of a hurricane as the Red Cross, or have as good a program that touches so many lives of youth people as the YMCA. We will never be able to take care of the poor in the way that The Salvation Army does. So why are we here?
The reason that we are here is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God that changed a group of scared followers of Jesus into the church. It is the gift of God’s Spirit that caused them to not only unlock the doors but open them. It is the gift that caused them to not only step out but to burst out proclaiming a new message of hope and relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. The Church was founded that day and the world was changed forever.
What these people experienced was the gift of the Holy Spirit and from that gift they knew their mission. The Church does not have a mission and then ask God to sustain it. No, what we do is very different. We are to know the gift of the Spirit and from that our mission will come; who we are is shaped by God. Mission is the overflow of a great gift – the gift of the anointing of God’s Spirit, not the carrying of a burden, but the sense of driven response to the all-encompassing love of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the active missionary, we are called to show up and let the Spirit lead and do the work.
Jesus was a great speaker. He used images and metaphors; he used stories to share God’s truth about God’s Kingdom. One way he did this was to use what was before them. He told stories that every person who heard it would immediately understand with a visual image. These images helped to make clear a message that was big, usually about God’s Kingdom. The story of the sower was something every person would have understood. They had seen sowers, people spreading seed.
But Jesus did something unexpected. He took what they saw and knew and with that image he then would shock them. He would take the image and turn it upside down.
This Sunday we have a story about the Christ as the Good Shepherd. It is familiar for us. We have heard it so many times it sort of rolls off the tongue. I have always liked the picture of Jesus, with a pastoral staff and a lamb on his shoulders. Isn’t it wonderful, Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But how many people here have ever seen a shepherd? Does anyone here know a shepherd? When Jesus told this story, every person had seen shepherds. They knew them. They were relatives or friends, or at least they had seen them around town or out in the fields taking care of the sheep.
They knew what a shepherd’s role was and what the expectations of the job were. We are at somewhat of a loss because that image is not something most of us have experienced.
Being a shepherd was a vocation. It required spending most of your time taking care of innocent, simple creatures. Being a shepherd was risky. It required a person who was willing to face whatever threat, whether wolf or lion or human and stand between these defenseless creatures and the threat. It required someone who would be a fiduciary and always think of the sheep before themselves.
So, Jesus describes his relationship with the people and said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10: 11-16)
He describes his relationship with you. Jesus describes his relationship; Gods relationship with humanity.
One thing you may not know is that every person there would have been shocked at his description. Shepherds who care for sheep, care for the dumbest creatures and Jesus was talking about them.
The 23rd Psalm speaks to this unique relationship and how dumb sheep are.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures:
When you hear,” leads me beside still waters”, hear also sheep will not drink from flowing water. They will only drink from pools of water. Finding still water is a requirement for sheep. They will also not eat from a container. They will not stick their heads in buckets. They need pastures. Unlike other farm animals, sheep do not do well in pens, but instead need to be out in pastures. Without this relationship and the shepherd taking them to a place where they can drink and where they can eat, they would die.
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in the right paths for his name’s sake.
Herding creatures are remarkable. They are something like baitfish in the ocean. I don’t know if you have ever seen a ball of bait fish. They move indiscriminately. From the outside, they look like one unit but this unit continuously changes shape. Fish move from outside to inside. The purpose is so the predator can’t pick out one fish to attack. Sheep have the same pattern. It is a good defense but it means they have no sense of direction on their own, especially when they are scared.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me: your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
The shepherd’s presence brings a sense of peace. The shepherd’s staff has two ends. The cured end is meant to lovingly help a sheep get out of trouble. It represents the pastoral touch of the shepherd. But the staff has another end. It is pastoral but is intended to correct the path the sheep is on.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Shepherds and sheep have a unique relationship. Sheep must depend on the shepherd because their instincts would not allow them to survive. Sheep are dumb. Jesus took what the people knew and then challenged them. He held up this image and then told them they were the sheep in the story. Jesus was describing a relationship which places him as the one who will lead because without that leadership we would die. He was talking about you. He was talking about me. Without God, without God’s redeeming love, you are not going to make it. But there is something placed on us. In this relationship, we have a responsibility. Yes, we may not be smart and yes, when left to our own devices we would die. But, we are asked to recognize God’s voice. We are asked to be in a relationship where we know God and God’s voice. We are asked to spend time listening and engaged in knowing God and God’s son and God’s spirit.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are called to follow and trust and depend. It is a relationship which calls each of us to seek out Christ, to know His voice, and to trust and follow.
I have told you fear is the greatest obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel. Fear stops the Good News of God. Terrorism is the attempt to make you fear. Terrorism uses violence to bring fear. Politicians use fear to get you to vote for them. If they can get you to know fear then they can tell you they have or are the answer. Preachers use fear to get you saved. Holding hell over you to believe what they know as the answer keeps you beholden to them.
Fear is a tool which is used to control you. I think you could use this morning's gospel as a tool to promote fear. It would be easy to spend this time talking about the bridesmaids who were not ready and lost their place, and if you aren’t careful, you will lose your place too. Much of religion and much of Christian religion is used to bring fear and therefore, conversion. In much of politics and our news and in religion we hear the same thing. It is the mantra of a terrorist. Believe the way I believe or die. I will not tell you that. I believe God’s grace is too big.
What I want to talk about is the opposite. I think I spend too much time thinking about the bridesmaids who were not prepared; when what I probably need to hear is the truth of those who were prepared. Surely, they had the same fears that the last bridesmaids did. What separates them, other than having enough oil?
My life has been filled with people who have stepped past fear and have made a difference in the world. I want to share with you a person who taught me what ministry is and she taught me what it means to seize this day, this moment.
I got to know Daisy when I was the assistant at St. Thaddeus in Aiken. I had been ordained for a year or so and I had the great joy to bring communion to the nursing home where she lived. Each Friday for three years we shared the sacrament. I would meet her in her room at 1:00, after lunch and we would have communion. Daisy was English; she was not quite five feet tall. She had an infectious smile and a dry and wonderful sense of humor. She had to have a leg amputated and was in a wheel chair. I remember when she told me she would have the surgery. I said "I’m so sorry Daisy". Her response was, “People have been trying to push me around most of my life and now I’m going to let them.”
Daisy and I were at two very different places in life. I was in the midst of accumulating. Alicia and I had only been married for a short time and we were buying stuff; house, cars, washing machine and dryer and the stuff you think that you need. Daisy had almost everything that I thought was important taken from her. Daisy had moved from England as a young girl. She married an American. She had no family in the states. Her only son had been killed in the second World War. He was buried in France. She had never seen his grave, but friends brought her pictures. Her husband of 48 years had died. She didn’t have much money and sold her home, car and all that she owned so that she could afford to move into a small nursing home outside Aiken. It was there that she had lived for almost ten years before I got to know her.
I tell you about Daisy because she understood her life as full and abundant in ways that I did not. She understood what it meant to seize the day and to thank God and to share her bounty with others. She understood what it means to be a steward and to give of herself out of the bounty of God’s grace. She didn’t know she was poor. She never thought of what she didn’t have. She shared out of abundance and not out of poverty, even though the world considered her poor.
Every morning Daisy got up and dressed. After breakfast, she wheeled herself to the front lobby and positioned herself beside the front door to greet people as they came in. The way she explained it was that people were coming into her home and everyone should be greeted with a smile; after all they were coming to visit people who had problems. She took it as a vocation, a calling.
After lunch, she would go to the nurse’s station and ask for a list of people who were depressed or sick. She then would visit those people. She hoped that her visit would bring them a little comfort. Daisy taught me what it meant to be a minister.
Daisy could have lived in fear. I think it would have been easy for her to be sorry for her losses, where she was and the problems she had. It would have been so easy to feel sorry for herself and sit alone, scared and angry. She instead lived a life of abundance and was willing to share in that abundance.
This gospel is in part a reminder that we are called not to fear, but to proclaim God’s bounty. Daisy lived her life doing that. She was all in. Every day of her life was an opportunity to be a bearer of the Good News. She was a poor woman but Daisy never gave out of her poverty but always out of the bounty of God’s grace. She thought she was rich, she lived like
she was rich, she responded to the world like she was rich, she proclaimed God’s love like she was rich, because she was.
Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
Gossip as its heart is a destructive force. We once played a game at EYC and summer camp called gossip. The game is simple. Everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers a word or phrase in the ear of the person next to them. They in turn whisper the same word, and around the circle it goes. When the last person hears the word they then tell the group. It never ends up being what the first person said.
I do not think it is any different for us at All Saints or in Clinton. Being conscious of what we say and how we say it is important, and Jesus in this passage reminds us of how we are called to deal with each other in and thru the love of Christ. It is a directive to talk to each other and not about each other. Jesus gives us a directive on how to deal with sin and to deal with it directly. This parish will grow and we will become more of what God intends us to be, only if we trust one another enough to be honest with each other. It is at the heart of Christian community and at the heart of what Jesus calls us to in faith.
I also hear something else. This passage is a call for humility. We must not only be open to confront sin in our midst but we must also be open to acknowledging the sin in our own lives. I think this passage is easy to hear when we believe that we have the truth for someone else, but much harder to hear when others see our sin and confront it.
Our Eucharist is an amazing thing. It was put together over 2000 years ago but at its heart is the worship that the first disciples did together. I also think that the patterns of worship we use are used by all or most all Christians. The essence of what we do is three parts of worship. We have the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the table, and between them is something that we too often forget or don’t take seriously. Before coming to this table and after hearing God’s word proclaimed, we are ask to seek absolution with God and each other. At the heart of the transition between hearing and receiving is an act of humility.
I don’t know if you realize the importance of this moment. I think too often it is just what we do, but the reality of this moment is that we are to seek to know our own sin and seek God’s forgiveness. But we are also to seek each other’s forgiveness. It is that pivotal moment which transforms you from sinner to saint. It is that moment in which you become acceptable to come before God and offer your gifts and yourself.
Placing something in that plate and coming to receive communion is not how you become acceptable before God. I want to suggest it is just the opposite. Don’t put anything in the plate if you have not sought forgiveness. It is not your ticket for communion. Do not come to this table if you have not sought absolution. That is not how you get here. This is the only place in the world where you cannot buy your way in. No, it is through confession and absolution; knowing God’s love and grace; seeking out those you have offended and asking for forgiveness that makes what you offer acceptable. It is seeking God’s forgiveness which transforms you from sinner into saint.
How do you prepare for your confession? How do you prepare each week to come to this table? I would love for you to prepare each week for this moment. I would love for you to come to this service with a 3x5 card or in my case, a notebook, for which needs to be forgiven. I would love for you to have spent some time preparing for this Eucharist by recognizing your own sin and then seeking God’s forgiveness. Imagine what would change if when you came to the Offertory sentence and that moment was a response to God’s forgiveness. Imagine what would change if you came forward to receive communion and that moment was in thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness.
Religious zeal is not what you think it is. I place a title on each of the sermons I write. The title for this sermon is Religious Zeal and as soon as I wrote those words, I knew that it would not be understood. We have a very powerful Gospel from Matthew. In it Jesus says,
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
Well, that bothered me. You see I want to be a good Christian, but I am not sure I want the consequences of following Jesus. I want to do what good Christians want to do. I want to learn about the Bible. I want to be kind to others and do Bible studies and read and say enough prayers to be a good Christian. But, if those are really my hopes for my faith then I probably will get them and no more. If I do what good Christians do, I probably would be able to say “ look how much I have done”, but I would have no relationship with God. The God who has sought a relationship with me from the beginning.
I have been blessed in my life in many ways. One way is I have enjoyed the great example of my father, who has taught me and been present with me. My father has been and is an example of a man of faith who lives it out daily and is seen in what he does and not just in the words he says. I have seen it throughout my life. My father acts out his faith. There are moments in life that define us - not by what we believe, but instead by who we are and how we live out who we are. When I was 7 or 8 years old, we had a Chihuahua named Fi-Fi. Fi-fi was a small dog. She never got over five pounds. One of the things that my parents told me not to do, and they said it many times, was not to throw the ball in the house. “Chuck, don’t throw the ball in the house”. It was a Saturday morning and the rest of the family was doing other things. I was alone and I was throwing the baseball into my glove, over and over. Now, Fi-fi was asleep on the couch. On one throw, I missed the pocket and the ball skimmed over the top of my glove and hit Fi-fi in the head and Fi-fi died.
I had just killed Fi-fi. She didn’t move. I used both hands to pick her up and she was limp, her tail hanging on one side and her head off the other. I took her into my parent’s room where dad was working on something. Not wanting him to know that I was throwing the ball, I said “something is wrong with Fi-fi”. My father looked down at this little creature and took her from me. He laid her on the bed and knelt down beside her realizing she wasn’t breathing. He opened his mouth and put it over her head and breathed. After a moment, she began to stir; she sat up. I remember that moment so well as a child - watching this grown man care - watching him have compassion for this little animal.
After my father was ordained a priest, we moved to a small southern town. Dad was the priest in charge of two small churches. It was in the early seventies and there was still anger over segregation. Indeed, the small town was still segregated and racism was still strong. In the middle of town there was a hardware store, a drug store and not much else. Like Clinton, there were railroad tracks running through town. One fall afternoon, an old black man was crossing the railroad tracks in his car when he was struck by a train. The violence of the wreck threw him from his car head first against the brick wall of the hardware store where he lay dying. School was letting out and people gathered at the scene. Business men and women, children and ministers from the other churches in town stood at a safe distance and watched, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. When my dad arrived, he saw that group of people in the middle of town, watching this old black man die. My father went and knelt beside him, held his hand and prayed with him as he died. The sad part of this is that if he had stood and watched with everyone else, no one would have thought less of him. Indeed, the opposite was true. He was criticized for what he did.
I want to be a good Christian. I want to learn and do good things. I want all the trappings of faith, but do I really want God to change me? Do I really want my life to be different because I know God and God knows me? Do I really want the people I know to be changed because of my relationship with God? In our world, too often religion and faith are not connected. Too often it is easy to learn everything about religion and not have a relationship with God. Matthew’s Gospel is about how to live out our faith. Faith and the proclamation of faith is not about knowing the right things or even doing the right things. Faith is about a relationship which is transforming.
What a glorious building we’re in. We have everything we need here. You can study God’s word. You can come and hear God’s word. You can worship God in this place. Your priest is all dressed up in fine robes and there is beautiful music to hear and gorgeous stained glass to see. But if this is where your faith resides, then you only have religion. If you come here on Sundays and think you have done what you need to do to be a good Christian, then you have missed it. You see, all of this - all that we are, the Eucharist we share, the music, the stained glass, this building, the programs offered is meant to point to one thing. All of this is meant to aim you at a relationship with God that changes who you are and propels you into the world to proclaim the risen Lord to those who do not know him. All of this is meant to enable you to act out your faith.
That is what I witnessed as my father knelt next to a dying man to pray. How are you going to act out your faith today?
It was called “Bethlehem 2000.”
It was the largest public works project ever inaugurated in the “Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Starting in March, 1997, over 250 million dollars was invested in improving Bethlehem’s public buildings, roads, and utilities.
Millions more were spent on advertising and public relations.
It was all part of the preparations for the turn of the Millenium: 2000 years since the Birth of Jesus Christ.
Two million pilgrims and visitors were expected between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2001—but that turned out to be a serious miscalculation.
Over twice that many people came!
Even after 2000 years, Bethlehem was still a small town with a population of less than 20,000.
It was still a rest-stop on the road to Jerusalem.
With slightly more than 1000 hotel rooms, there was still a shortage of available rooms.
Visitors still had to be turned away—because there was “no room in the inn!”
Mayor Hanna Nasser best summed up the importance of Bethlehem when he said:
“Despite its small size, Bethlehem proves today that it is the most important of all cities in the world at this unique point in time.
“None other has what God gave us:
“The Birthplace of Jesus Christ.”
And it is that Birth—in Bethlehem—the most important Birth in all of history—that we celebrate tonight!
According to the accepted chronology, this is the 2016th Anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord.
While it is certain that the Birth took place in Bethlehem, the date has been questioned by scholars.
It now seems that there may be a discrepancy of 4 or 5 years.
So, maybe—this is actually the 2021st or 2022nd Anniversary of Christ’s Birth!
Likewise—it now seems that there is another discrepancy.
The cover of tonight’s bulletin proclaims that this is the 64th Annual Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.
But it has been brought to my attention that the first Christmas Eve Service in this church building—and the first service ever held by All Saints’ Church—was celebrated on December 24, 1952.
If that is true—then tonight is actually the 65th Annual Christmas Eve Service.
The only living persons who can verify that are Marcia Addison and Mike Turner—and maybe Harry Sullivan--for they were there!
So here’s the question:
Do the discrepancies matter?
The answer—in both cases—is not really.
The important thing is that Christ was born in Bethlehem—and that we are here tonight to celebrate that earth-shaking and life-changing event!
But that’s not all!
There is yet another anniversary that I need to acknowledge.
On December 24, 2006—ten years ago—I celebrated my first Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’.
It was one of my first services here.
And tonight I celebrate my last Christmas Eve Service—and my final service at All Saints’.
(Believe-it-or-not, I am the longest-serving priest in the history of All Saints’!)
So this Christmas Eve is a special one.
There is no discrepancy about that!
It marks a transition for me—into a blessed retirement;
And a transition for you—into a New Beginning for this parish—with a new priest that God will bring here.
For you and for me, then—God’s promise of New Birth and New Life will be fulfilled this Christmas.
Like any transition—including the Great Divide between B.C. and A.D. that took place on the First Christmas—this one is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.
The Future—and the changes it will bring—may seem frightening.
But the angels’ song that we hear tonight herald’s God’s promise of “Peace on Earth, Good Will towards all.”
And we know we can trust that promise!
But—back to Bethlehem for a moment. Elizabeth and I have enduring memories from our visit to Bethlehem in 2008.
To see the Birthplace of Jesus, we left Jerusalem and traveled by bus to what is called “Manger Square.”
There, the Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto that is believed to be the exact spot of Christ’s Birth.
The Empress Helena—mother of Constantine the Great—built the first church on that location in the fourth century.
In that church, St. Jerome lived as he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate.
Then, in the sixth century, that church was destroyed—and re-built in its present form by the Emperor Justinian.
The curious thing about the Church of the Nativity is its entrance—which is less than four feet high!
It is called “The Door of Humility”—because one must literally “bow down” in order to get in.
And that is what Elizabeth and I did.
Once inside, the visitor descends one of two staircases that lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity—a rough cave that is about 10 feet by 35 feet in area.
A silver star on the floor before the altar bears a Latin inscription which reads:
“Here—Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
Through the centuries, pilgrims have worn the stone of the cave’s floor smooth—by kneeling to kiss the exact spot where the Savior became Incarnate.
“The Door of Humility” that I mentioned originally served a practical purpose.
It was intended to prevent horsemen from riding into the church—and thereby desecrating it.
But it also has a spiritual meaning.
As I said—it is necessary for one to bow down—almost upon one’s knees—in order to enter the church.
That is fitting and proper—because bowing down—in humility and awe—is the only way we can approach the Incarnate Lord.
On bended knee is the only way we can celebrate his Nativity.
Entering through “The Door of Humility” is
the only way we can “worship Christ, the New-Born King” tonight!
And while I’m on the subject of worshipping Christ the New-Born King, allow me say a word about incense.
Frankincense was present on the First Christmas—as one of the gifts of the Magi—and it has been used at Christmas celebrations ever since.
As the hymn “We Three Kings” correctly points out--incense points to the deity of Christ.
Incense has been used in virtually every culture and every religion to worship the Deity—however the Deity has been conceived.
The Old Testament, for example, asserts that God enjoys “sweet-smelling odors”—just as his human creations do—and it actually provides a recipe for making the scent that God prefers.
The New Testament Book of Revelation says that the prayers of the faithful rise up to God’s throne in Heaven—like the fragrant smoke of incense wafting heavenward.
So incense is symbolic of prayer and worship—and that is why the Church uses incense—especially at Christmas and Easter.
This year—for the first time—I decided to refrain from using incense on Christmas Eve.
I don’t know why, exactly.
Maybe I just didn’t want to mess with it.
Or maybe I didn’t want to hear the comments I always get.
In any case, many of us do have allergies.
So you can consider it my Christmas gift to you tonight!
But in so doing —I hope we will all remember the meaning behind the incense—and worship Jesus Christ as our God and King.
Finally—as I bid you all a fond farewell on this—my 11th Christmas Eve with you—let me remind you one last time of the most familiar—and perhaps the most important verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16.
Now let me un-pack that for you:
John 3:16 is the real “Good Tidings of Great Joy”—the “Gospel in miniature”—as Martin Luther said.
It’s the only reason we celebrate Christmas.
John 3:16 has been the key-stone of my ministry for 40 years--and I leave it with you tonight—as my final word.
(Say it again.)
It had been a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem—and Mary and Joseph were both exhausted as they pulled into the parking lot of the Motel Six.
Joseph went inside to get a room—just as the “No Vacancy” sign lit up.
The innkeeper said:
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no room here.”
“No room?” Joseph replied, “But my wife is pregnant!”
“I’m sorry again, sir,” said the innkeeper, “but that’s not my fault.”
“It’s not my fault either,” Joseph replied.
Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was not Joseph’s fault.
The child within her womb was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”—without male DNA.
And Joseph had no idea—until he was shocked into reality by an angelic visitor!
We can only guess what Joseph’s thoughts might have been before he had this revealing dream.
But we are told that Joseph was a “righteous man”—and wanted to avoid exposing Mary to the “public disgrace” of an adultery investigation.
Imagine his surprise--his utter amazement—to discover that Mary’s son would be the long-awaited Messiah!
Today is the fourth—and last—Sunday of the Advent Season.
Up until now—the Scripture readings have concentrated on the future coming of Christ.
But today the focus shifts—to the promises fulfilled in the first coming of Our Lord.
Those ancient promises include the fact that the Messiah would be a “son”—a “descendant”—of the great King David.
He would be “descended from David according to the flesh”—as Saint Paul would later put it.
Joseph was responsible for the fulfillment of this prophecy—since he was a direct descendant of David.
According to the Law—he was Jesus’ father—since he was married to Jesus’ mother—and that was considered more important than biology.
The other promise is what theologians call the Virgin Birth—or sometimes the Virginal Conception—of Christ (not to be confused with the “Immaculate Conception of Mary”—which is something entirely different!)
The Prophet Isaiah—living in the eighth century B.C.—had foretold that a “young maiden”--a virgin—would conceive and bear a son.
In Isaiah’s prophecy too—the child would be a member of the “House of David.”
This royal child would be called by a special name--Emmanuel—which (in Hebrew) means God with us.
Eight hundred years later—Mary’s son was born.
Although he was given the name Jesus—he would also be called Emmanuel—God with us in—human form.
As Saint Paul says—he “was declared to be Son of God”—with divine powers—shown most clearly in his “Resurrection from the dead.”
We are specifically told that Joseph took Mary as his wife--“but had no marital relations with her” until after the child was born.
Some wise person—a church-goer himself, no doubt—has said that the attentiveness of a congregation during a sermon is inversely proportional to the number of Greek and Hebrew words the preacher explains.
So I’ll give you a break—and leave it at this:
The name Jesus—given by the angel in Joseph’s dream—also has a meaning.
In Hebrew, “Jesus” means: God will save.
The child was given a name that said what he was destined to do:
Jesus—son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God—who was called Emmanuel—“God with us”—was born to be the Messiah—through whom “God will save.”
That is the Good News in today’s Scripture readings!
But what about Joseph?
I’ve always felt a little bit sorry for him.
Joseph seems to get the short end of the stick in this story.
He doesn’t get nearly the recognition—nor the adoration—that the Virgin Mary does.
As Jesus’ foster father—Joseph was also his protector—and presumably his teacher.
But—unlike Mary—he disappears quickly from the biblical narrative.
Tradition says that Joseph was much older than Mary—and that he died when Jesus was still a child.
Joseph must have felt somewhat humiliated by the events that unfolded in today’s Gospel—especially since it soon became publicly known that Jesus was not his biological son.
One of my favorite Christmas carols portrays Joseph’s humiliation very poignantly.
It’s a 15th Century English ballad—called The Cherry Tree Carol.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to sing it to you—but the lyrics go like this:
When Joseph was an old man—and old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary—the Queen of Galilee.
Then Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,
There were berries and cherries—as fair as might be seen.
Then Mary spoke to Joseph—so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries—for I am with child.
Then Joseph flew in anger—in anger flew he,
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”
In this version of the story—Joseph is portrayed as ignorant of his wife’s pregnancy—until Mary reveals it to him—under the guise of a sudden craving for cherries.
Joseph’s immediate reaction is anger—and an implicit threat to terminate their marital relationship.
However—the Holy Child intervenes:
Then up spoke Baby Jesus—from in Mary’s womb,
“Bend down, thou tallest branches—that my mother might have some.”
The branches obey their Incarnate Creator’s voice—and bend down to drop cherries into Mary’s hand:
“Now look thou my Joseph (she says)—I have cherries by command!”
At this development—Joseph immediately recognizes his error—and repents.
In some versions of the song—the last verse says:
Then Joseph said to Mary—from down on bended knee,
“May the Lord have mercy—have mercy on me.”
It is interesting that the story told by this fanciful carol has the same basic elements as our Gospel reading:
Joseph is miraculously informed of the truth about Mary’s pregnancy--not by an angelic visitation—but by a cherry tree that is obedient to its Master’s voice.
As a result Joseph reconsiders his intention to end the marriage—and comes to accept his divinely-ordained role as foster-father and protector of the Messiah.
And so today—our Advent journey comes to an end.
The stage is set for the next act in the drama of redemption:
Our hearts and minds have been prepared for the Coming of the promised Messiah—whose birth was long-ago foretold.
I will give British poet—and fellow Episcopalian—W.H. Auden—the final word.
Auden says that dogmas—such as the Virgin Birth—should be understood “neither as logical propositions—nor as poetic utterances.
“They are to be taken, rather, as ‘shaggy-dog stories.’
“They have a point—but whoever tries too hard to get the point—will miss it.”
The point for us is about saying “yes” to God.
Both Joseph and Mary said “yes” to God—with a courage that makes the rest of us look spineless by comparison!
And because they did—they became part of the greatest miracle of all:
The en-flesh-ment of God as one of us!
What happened to Joseph and Mary must also happen to us.
Through our faith—Christ can be born into the world today—and become incarnate once again—in our flesh and blood.
All it takes is for you and me to do what Joseph and Mary did—and say “yes” to God!
Now let us pray.
You so loved the world that you gave your Only-Begotten Son—that whoever believes in him might not perish—but have Everlasting Life.
Open our hearts by the Grace of your Holy Spirit—that Jesus—Son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God;
Messiah—Savior—Emmanuel—may be born in us this Holy Season;
And that we may be born again in him.
Many of us have had the good fortune to visit the Great Smoky Mountains.
The area can best be described as breathtaking!
To walk the trails, and drive the roads, is to view mile-after-mile of spectacular vistas that literally cause one to gasp in awe.
And if you happen to be a person who views God as the earth’s creator, you cannot help but be impressed by this particular part of God’s handiwork, and stand in awe and wonder at God’s creativity.
The Great Smokies, like the many mountain ranges that are scattered over our planet, can cause one to feel as if she is standing on holy ground.
So it is disturbing to hear of the recent devastating fires which have so severely disrupted life in those mountains.
I find I am hesitant to consider returning there, in light of the destruction to property and the loss of life—both human and wild!
Because of this tragic fire, some things and some people who can never be replaced have been lost.
This is true of all tragedies that erupt on earth and interrupt our lives!
Yes, I know the beauty will return.
I know life will return!
But this is little consolation for those who are now suffering.
This is when people of faith wait for words of comfort, consolation and assurance.
This is when we expect to hear from God.
Perhaps some of you have heard one of the more poignant stories to reach us after the fires.
It’s about a young man named Isaac McCord.
As an employee of Dollywood, McCord was assigned the task of helping with the clean-up effort in the park after the fire.
As he was picking up burned material from the fires in the area, he noticed a page from a book floating in a puddle of water.
As he lifted the paper from the water, he discovered he was holding a page from the Bible that had survived the fire.
When he looked more carefully at these charred remains, his eyes landed on a verse he later identified as Joel 1:19:
O Lord, to thee will I cry:
For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness,
And the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.
What Isaac McCord discovered in the rubble was a sign—that even in our modern and jaded age cannot be dismissed:
God is present, even in the suffering after a devastating fire.
I, for one, wish God were always so direct with his message.
But more often, God is more subtle when speaking to us.
While the images of fire in the mountains are difficult to witness in the news, the message of the Advent season comes through clearly in this story.
The residents of Gatlinburg must now wait for their lives to be restored and rebuilt.
In some respects, all of us are like that: People who must wait for our lives to be rebuilt after a disaster.
Advent reminds us that we are always waiting for God to act in our lives.
Today’s Gospel brings the issue of waiting into clear focus for us as well.
We fast-forward about thirty years from the birth of Jesus.
King Herod has thrown John the Baptist into prison.
In prison, John finds time to reflect on his situation, and he begins to ask questions—questions we might ask in similar circumstances:
“If I am on God’s side, why am I suffering this punishment?
“Does my life matter?
“Was I right about Jesus?”
It isn’t difficult to imagine John’s feelings as he ponders his situation in his imprisonment.
In prison we find a John the Baptist we can sympathize with—much more than the wild preacher in the wilderness.
But true to his nature as a man of action,
John sends a message to Jesus asking for an answer to his question.
Jesus responds simply:
“Look at the signs—the blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the mute begin to speak.”
All these signs point to the truth that God’s Kingdom is being made real.
These signs represent God’s ongoing presence in the world.
The message to John is that God is present in all that is happening.
Jesus says, “Go tell John that God has not forsaken him, even in his dire circumstances.”
God’s signs are still here.
God’s message has not changed.
Maybe after the changes of the last 2000 years, we have grown more skeptical.
If you are among those skeptics, take heart. God is still active in our world.
And the story from Dollywood is one small indication of God’s action!
When Mr. McCord found his message from God, he shared it in the modern way—by posting it on his Facebook page.
Within hours, 50,000 reposts of his page had been generated.
A few days later, Dolly Parton herself announced that she would be donating $1000 a month to all the families in the county who had lost their homes in the fires—as an expression of her faith in God and her unwavering commitment to the community of her birth.
What we must remember is that what seems to be the end of the world has never yet been the end of the world!
We just figure out what to do next, and get on with it—while trusting in the God who speaks even in the midst of earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and floods.
The world is not coming to an end.
The Apocalypse is not here until the Apocalypse is actually here!
There is still work to be done.
Many problems still need to be solved.
Injustices abound around the world. Conflicts continue.
People need to be fed.
The urgent needs of the world demand to be met.
Signs of God’s presence need to be interpreted for unbelieving and doubting audiences.
In some respects, we live in exactly the situation John faced.
We don’t yet know how impending changes will affect us.
It is easy when fears overtake us to question or to doubt, just as John did.
We should remember that even the last of God’s prophets, John the Baptist, experienced fears and doubts.
Even he needed a word of assurance from God.
To me, that is the real strength of this story.
Waiting is not easy.
Many difficulties arise.
Effectively, our entire lives are tied up in this task of expectantly waiting—and striving to live in faithfulness.
But the signs continue.
One other thing about Isaac McCord.
He freely stated that he didn’t see himself as particularly religious.
He did report that he read the Bible from time to time.
But after he found that page of Scripture, he said that he realized it was such a powerful sign from God that he made the commitment to turn his life around.
The page in the water became the turning point for his life.
I guess time will tell.
John’s questions were answered directly by Jesus.
And few of us have had so clear an answer as Mr. McCord received.
As I said before, God often answers in more subtle ways.
And so—may we seek and find assurances of God’s presence with us!
May we glimpse the signs of God’s presence in our lives—that our spirits, like John’s, may be re-kindled;
And—like Mary the Mother of our Lord—may our spirits rejoice in the God who is faithful to his promises!
A few years ago, I came across a Christmas card featuring John the Baptist.
You can imagine my surprise—since John isn't a character usually featured on greeting cards.
I can still remember the comical drawing on the cover—of John in his camel hair toga arriving at a Christmas party, casserole of locusts and wild honey in hand.
The locusts were trying to escape the dish, and the host was frowning with displeasure—at both John and his culinary offering.
Of course, I had to buy those cards, and I sent them too—mostly to Episcopal clergy, because I knew they would see the humor.
Recently, I read about a pastor who is toying with the idea of creating a "John the Baptist" line of Christmas cards.
So far, here is what he has produced:
Outside card reads: "From our house to yours this holiday season."
Inside reads: "Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!”
Outside card: "Let's all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log."
Inside: "which will burn like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity.”
Outside card: "Season's greeting to you from across the miles.”
Inside: "Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?"
These are not exactly tidings of “Comfort and Joy!”
And while they may not exactly put the receiver in the Christmas spirit, the words and sentiments are straight out of Scripture—from John’s lips to our ears!
John the Baptist is a perplexing figure at any time, but especially so when he insists on entering into the Christmas story—as he always does during the season of Advent.
He comes out of the desert to point us to Bethlehem.
He comes to make certain we know how important it is that the Son of God has been born.
Yet, John’s message collides with the thoughts Christmas generally brings to our minds.
John himself is the most unlikely character in the entire Nativity cast.
My hunch is that no one ever really wants to be bothered with John—given his wild appearance, his sharp words of admonishment, and his appalling manners.
Of this I am absolutely certain:
John is not an Episcopalian!
No one is ever tempted to place him in the Christmas pageant—or in the manger scene.
But come he will—each Advent—and we are required to deal with him.
We may want to shake our heads, and say, “Bless his heart.”
But we cannot be so dismissive of him, because he has come for our reclamation.
He is here for our good.
I mean this in a figurative sense.
John the Baptist is here to remind us why Christmas matters!
He points us to the reason for the celebration we are making ready—by reminding us that the coming of Jesus is nothing less than the central event of history, and the crucial act of God.
In Christ—God is with us.
He has come to his people.
He has sent a savior to reclaim us—from all those things that threaten us!
God has sent Jesus to live as one of us—and to die for all of us—and in doing so, give us lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.
John tells us that everything has been changed by the Christ event.
He puts Christmas into perspective.
He also brings us into the drama.
Well, if Christmas is as we say we believe, about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, then John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming—and follow him.
If, as we say we believe, Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, then John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit—and open to the weak and vulnerable among us—is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.
If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, then John reminds us that joining the cosmic celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses and seeking healing for our wounds.
He calls us to repent, and be baptized in Jesus, with the Holy Spirit and its refining fire.
If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, then John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.
What John does for us during this Advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is—on our list of things to do to get ready for Christmas.
With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationship with God, and the ways that relationship impacts how we live.
For, you see—if Christmas is to happen for us this year, it will not happen in a far-away and long-ago stable.
No—if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of people—young and old—who invite and embrace the birth of a renewed experience of God in their lives.
A few minutes ago I suggested that John the Baptist is the most unlikely character to find at the manger.
But that is not quite so.
The most unlikely characters are us!
All of us!
How amazing is it that God has called us to be part of his plan?!
How amazing is it that God has blessed us through his son—giving us wonderful intangible gifts, including the gift of “peace that passes understanding?!”
God wants us in the Christmas drama!
John comes early to tell us, “Whatever you are doing, stop it—and get ready to receive the greatest gift ever given!
“Make a place for Jesus in your life!
“Receive the gift God has prepared for you!
Christmas will come.
What John wants to know—is whether or not Christmas will happen in you.
Are you getting ready?
“If not”—he says—“time’s a wasting!”
Advent tells us Christ is near;
Christmas tells us Christ is here.
Some of you may have been Episcopalians long enough to remember those words!
They are the opening lines of a hymn written by Katherine Hankey in 1888.
It was included in our former Hymnal 1940—but left out of the current Hymnal 1982.
What a shame!
For it served the useful purpose of teaching children (of all ages) about the seasons of the Church Year.
And we probably still need that!
Just in case you don’t know—we begin a new Church Year today—on the First Sunday of Advent.
Advent tells us Christ is near.
On these four Sunday’s before Christmas—we contemplate the Advent—the Coming—of Our Lord Jesus Christ—for He is near!
The Church Year—with which you can familiarize yourself by taking home a copy of our Episcopal Liturgical Calendar—is a gift that brings meaning to the secular calendar and its seasons—and enriches us spiritually.
It allows us—year after year—to walk with Jesus.
We are joined with Christ—by re-living the events of his life and ministry through the seasons of the Church Year.
It is as though we were there!
The Church Year also offers members of a congregation—and a denomination—a sense of shared identity—a feeling of community.
For we are not there with Jesus alone.
We are there together!
Celebrating the seasons of the Church Year can be thought of as holding a conversation with God.
The first half of the Church Year—Advent through Pentecost—represents God speaking to us—through the Incarnation of his Son.
It reveals the very Nature of God in the person of Jesus Christ: His birth, death, resurrection, and ascension—and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The second half of the Church Year—the Sundays and weekdays after Pentecost—is referred to as “Ordinary Time.”
It shifts our focus to our own personal response to God.
First—God speaks to us.
What will we do—in response to all that God has done for us?
In this season of “Ordinary Time” we concentrate on the mission and ministry which belong to those who profess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Today—then—we begin a new Church Year—with the season of Advent—which tell us that Christ’s coming is near.
We must confess that the spirit of Advent goes against the grain of what most people think of as the “Holiday Season.”
Advent is counter-cultural—if you will.
While everyone else is decorating, buying presents, and getting ready to party—we are asked to be reflective.
Advent poses a profound and serious question:
Are we ready?
Are we ready to receive Our Lord when he comes?
The premise is that the way we are living now—the things we are saying and doing in our everyday lives—will determine our readiness.
“For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Advent reminds us that Jesus Christ “came to visit us in great humility”—some 2016 years ago.
After this “visit”—he ascended into Heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father—from whence—as the Creed says—“he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
It is Christ’s coming again—on “the last day”—“in glorious majesty—to judge both the living and the dead”—with which Advent is primarily concerned.
And so the question for each of us is:
Are we ready for that day?
The time we are given in which to prepare is “now—in the time of this mortal life.”
And none of us knows how long that will be.
For those of us who are getting older—(and none of us are getting any younger)—the words of St. Paul say it all:
“Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.
“For salvation is nearer now than it was when we first became believers.
“The night is far gone—and the Day is near!”
Advent tells us Christ is near.
Therefore we must be ready!
As the Apostle Paul says:
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness—and put on the armor of light.
“Let us live honorably—not in reveling and drunkenness—not in debauchery and licentiousness—not in quarreling and jealousy.
“Instead—let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Only so will we be ready when he comes!
Jesus himself says that the Day of his Coming will take everyone by surprise.
No one knows when it will be:
Not humans, not angels, not even Jesus himself--but only God the Father.
It will be just like the flood that God brought upon the world in the time of Noah.
People went on with their lives as usual—knowing nothing until the flood came—and suddenly swept them all away.
Only Noah and his family were ready.
Advent tells us that we also must be ready:
“For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I think you can see what I mean when I say that Advent is counter-cultural.
There is nothing here about holly, mistletoe, reindeer, or sleigh bells in the snow.
There is no Silent Night, no Christmas trees, no Nativity scenes.
Just the stark message of Christ’s Coming—and our need to be ready.
Advent tells us Christ is near.
But that’s not the whole story.
Remember what the Prophet Isaiah had to say concerning the “days to come.”
Isaiah had a vision of a New Jerusalem—built on the highest of all mountains.
In those days—the “last days”—all the peoples of the earth will be drawn to the Holy City—and will come streaming into its gates.
They will come to worship the God of Jacob—and to learn his ways.
The Word of the Lord will arbitrate all disputes between the nations—and will preside over a Peaceable Kingdom where there is no more war.
Isaiah’s vision shows us the positive side of Advent.
Jesus Christ himself is the “Word of the Lord”—the Word of God Incarnate—whose Coming will finally bring peace to the world.
His Kingdom will finally bring about the unity that has always eluded human efforts.
On that day, God’s people will “rise to the life immortal”—and reign with him forever!
Imagine all the nations of the world—finally at peace with each other.
Imagine all the peoples of the world—finally brought together in perfect harmony.
Imagine the joy of Eternal Life—to be shared by all in the very Presence of God.
(Even John Lennon couldn’t “imagine” all that!)
That is what Christ’s Advent will bring.
That is what awaits God’s people on the last day.
That is what we are called to be ready for!
Advent tells us Christ is near.
Today is the beginning of a new Church Year.
During this year—God willing—Christians who observe the Church Year will walk together with Jesus—through all the holy events of his life and death and resurrection.
We will enter into a conversation with God--listening to hear God speak to us—and striving to do God’s will in response.
Beginning with these four weeks before Christmas—while the world prepares to party—we will be engaged in a different kind of preparation.
We will contemplate the Coming of our Lord—and reflect on the question:
Are we ready?
Advent tells us Christ is near.
Only when we have heard the Advent message—and responded to it—will we be ready to say:
Christmas tells us Christ is here.