After a long Advent season, and an even longer year, I’m glad to be here to share this quick message of hope and promise with you. 2020 has been a difficult journey, and heartbreaking for many. Yet, if you are watching this then you have made it just in time to celebrate the time-honored tradition of Christmas.
Because of COVID, most churches will gather in a new way to hear the old story of Jesus coming into the world; the light which breaks into the least likely of places. And with this light comes hope. This year we need to be reminded about the way the light comes in. We need to hear that darkness doesn’t have the final word. We need to see God’s grace made manifest for you and me to survive moments like this.
So let us gather in our homes and around the world, to see God in a new light, in flesh like ours, and to hear the good news that we celebrate not just on Christmas Day, but hopefully every day after as well.
Let us pray: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, your children, may be refreshed and renewed by your Holy Spirit as we gather in bold new ways to have our hearts and hands open to receive the good news of your beloved son, who by his righteousness revealed to us your great mystery for all to see. Amen.
Our reading tonight is taken from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. It’s a familiar story read by a familiar face in our home. READ: Luke 2:1-21
This year has been a year of doing old things in new ways. Like going to work in our pajamas. Or withdrawing money from the bank while wearing a mask. If ever there was a time to take a new look on an old story this is the year. Tonight, instead of putting our focus on the stable at center stage, I want to turn our attention to the shepherds in the background. Those beloved scamps no one ever wants to play in the Christmas pageant.
While everyone fights to be Mary, or an angel, or the coveted Inn Keeper, the role of shepherds is often filled last. It’s typically reserved for the kids who didn’t want to be in the pageant in the first place. They are nameless, non-descript. No single one is more important than the others. They just sit on the side of the stage waiting for the angels to come and bring them the good news.
It’s a brief moment in the spotlight that typically comes right before the wisemen enter the scene pushing the shepherds into the background from which they came. I like to think of the shepherds as the quiet heroes of the Christmas story.
In a year has been particularly noisy, full of things yelling to get attention, our hearts yearn for humble ones like these shepherds – quietly minding their own business in a dark field. Far from the chaos of everyday life, the angels surround them. It’s here, to a small, inconspicuous group of outsiders that God chooses to announce the birth of Godself into the world.
This tells us something about God and the shepherds. That God comes to people like us to bring the light into a world that is often filled with darkness. The shepherds respond to God’s invitation by running to this baby the angels told them about. What does this say about how we should respond to God?
It might not always come with a choir of angels, but God is always inviting us to come and meet Christ – calling us deeper into relationship with our neighbors, or practice blessing our enemies without judgment. The shepherds run with excitement to the center of this production, even if it’s only for a moment. Eventually the Magi of the East will come bearing sacred gifts to honor the Christ child. But tonight, the shepherds bring only themselves.
They are not rich. And they carry with them hardly any possessions. In fact, the only present they bring was their humble presence. They come with an open heart to receive what God wanted to share with them. They come with a willingness to be transformed, with courage to overcome any fear they might have had. They bring with them a small spark of faith, and a flickering light of hope.
Tomorrow as we wake up and exchange presents with one another, I hope you will think about the gifts you can give after the tree and decorations are put away? The gifts of the shepherds.
As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, remember the surprise and joy of the lowly workers, and offer the good news to someone who is lost in March, or someone who is hungry in June, who is in need of peace in October.
Theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, said it best in his poem The Work of Christmas:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
Like Thurman pointed out, our gift to God is our response to the human condition. How we care for those who are hungry, comfort those who mourn, clothe the naked is how we sing our heartfelt hallelujahs. And showcase God’s glory.
Our gifts are not dependent on what we can afford, but on what we are willing to give – that inner light of Christ that shines brightly through our acts of mercy, grace and love. When life gives us a dark year like this one, God entrusts us with carrying in the light into the darkness. And there’s plenty of darkness out there – political unrest, systematic racism, and inequality and injustice. COVID has left countless widowed and orphaned, shuttered a lot of our small businesses and forced layoffs that have left many people fearing they’ll be left homeless in the new year. There is a real hunger and need for the light of Christ to be seen; its warmth felt.
It doesn’t take a heavenly host of angels to deliver the good news of God’s love and mercy to the world. A smile or a kind word will suffice. A gentle touch or willing ear can go a long way. As one little baby showed us, as those humble shepherds would discover, the smallest of gifts can have the greatest impact in God’s kingdom. Like a good friend once said, “Christmas night is different from other nights but that all other days and nights are different because of Christmas night.”
In Christ, God burst through the darkness and lit up the stage where there are no insignificant players left waiting in the wings. We are all important voices invited to participate and to proclaim God’s redemptive grace.
In Christ, God is calling you to the role of a lifetime; to be in the spotlight, center stage, singing with heavenly hosts: The first noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.
I encourage you to take God’s invitation out into the world. Go and be the gift of God’s light and love to all of God’s children...the faithful and faithless alike. Your presence is the only present God needs to redeem the world with peace.
May God bless you. May the Holy Spirit lead you. And May Christ shine through you, everywhere you go.
Merry Christmas. And good night.
Special thanks to the inspiration of Jazzy Bostock's "The Shepherds." (accessed on 12-22-2020).
Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “If you’re not too long, I will wait for you all my life.” There is something both funny and sad about this. Research has shown that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours waiting in line each year. I suspect that total might be higher this year.
As we wait for this virus to pass and a vaccine to take hold, I want to tell you about a Japanese concept known as ‘ma.’ It refers to a gap, pause or negative space between things. Think about the time between ordering a hamburger and actually receiving it. You wait and your stomach growls, your mouth waters, or you get frustrated and “hangry” as others get their orders before you.
The beautiful thing about ‘ma’ is it offers us a great way to practice mindfulness. To live in that gap of time, fully present and aware of the world in and all around us.
I recently put this technique to the test while standing in a long line to get into Trader Joes. While most people stood there with their face buried into their phones, I made a mental list of all the things I was grateful for. As I did, I began to feel more relaxed and see the blessings of God all around me. And my mood transformed from frustrated and bored, to feeling calm and alive.
Advent is a season of waiting. A time to be present with God and be transformed in the process. The question for us is: How do we fill in the gap of time between now and when Christ is revealed in the world?
For the third Sunday in advent, we return to the proclamation of an unknown prophet who wrote this part of what is commonly known as third Isaiah. These words of hope were written in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites had waited a long time to go home and to begin the restoration of the Holy Land.
The prophet offers them this poetic reminder of who they are and what they are called to do as they rebuild their lives from the rubble of war. Some five hundred years after they were first spoken, Jesus would stand in synagogue in his hometown and read these very words to the congregation as he himself ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven in a new and yet familiar way.
Read Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
It is commonly believed that these verses from Isaiah center around the theme of salvation and mission. Perhaps that’s why Jesus read from this particular scroll when he did. As the story goes Luke’s gospel, Jesus returns to his hometown. The people are excited. Word had gotten out that he was a rabbi whose yoke, his interpretations and teachings of scripture, were new and exciting.
Similar to what this unknown author of this Isaiah passage is doing - recalling older traditions found in Torah and molding them in new ways. His mission is clear, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Salvation has come for those who are afflicted. Debts will be wiped away. And the land will be returned to its rightful owners. Imagine your Congressperson proclaiming salvation like this he or she would be run out of town.
It shouldn’t surprise us that when Jesus read this passage, he too was revealing a bit of himself and his calling – that he has come to fulfill the redemptive grace of God. It’s funny what we call good news today was enough to send the folks in the pews running after Jesus to kill him. How blasphemous that he, the lowly carpenter’s kid, was going to be the one who save them.
Most Christians today have no problem professing that Jesus is their savior. But how many have ever been bold enough to ask, what is it that I need to be saved from? Somewhere along the way, salvation has come to be defined as being saved from God's punishment and avert going to hell. This seems to be counter intuitive to God’s hesed, or steadfast love. It makes God’s grace seem so petty and small. Like it’s based on quid pro quo.
A bigger problem I have in this way of thinking is that it puts the focus of our mission on filling up heaven with as many people as possible and has very little to do with actually doing the work to make people want to go there in the first place. Like Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.” Too many people who say they believe in Jesus, but with little intention to actually follow what he calls them to do. That hypocrisy, I fear, is chasing people away from God’s love and grace instead of drawing them in. Where is the good news in that?
I think both Jesus and Isaiah challenge us to name salvation, not as making reservations for life after we die, but a way to live life before we die. If this is so, then salvation is not a free pass through the pearly gates. It’s about being transformed right here, beginning right now. It would mean our mission as followers of Christ must focus only on how we participate in this world.
Which takes us to the words in Isaiah. Like I said, he’s taking old promises and making them new again. His words of hope for God’s people are drawn directly from Torah, the story of life and how to live it. More than an extensive collection of laws God gave to Moses, Torah teaches us how to care for all of God’s creation...and live with abundance in God’s shalom.
We have a neighbor, Eli, who is a bighearted Moroccan Jewish immigrant from Israel. When I was in seminary, he was always curious about what I was learning. One day I saw him and said I had learned the meaning of life. And Eli laughed, “Oh really? Tell me, what is the meaning of life?”
I looked him in the eye and said one word, “Torah.”
Eli’s smile and said, “So now you know. But what about your Jesus?”
I thought for a moment and told him, “Jesus is the only one I know who lived Torah perfectly. By following him I have the key to living an abundant life.”
If Jesus is nothing more than the living embodiment of Torah, then he is still a savior. Following his teachings, his way of living life, is what saves us from doing harm to others. It invites us to be peace makers just as Jesus was. Our mission then, as the body of Christ, is to live Torah – which can be simplified in the way we love God, love others, and serve both.
And let us not forget those others we are called to love include those who are named as the recipients of the good news: the oppressed, the broken hearted, the captives and prisoners, the mournful, the faint of spirit. As followers of Christ, we are called to be missionaries who proclaim God’s favor among the nations so that God’s salvation will be known in a world not yet fully redeemed.
To stay well in the midst of all that’s happening in our world these days, Henri Nouwen advised us “to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being.” That small child he speaks of is the Christ within us. The divine imprint of God’s love etched in all of creation.
Advent is a time of waiting. As we wait, let us use the time to look within ourselves and in the eyes of others to see the small Christ child and act accordingly.
Like Catherine Doherty wrote, “Christians are called to incarnate Christ in our lives, to clothe our lives with him, so that people can see him in us, touch him in us, recognize him in us.” But is that how we are spending our time? Have we let the busyness of the world get in the way of living Christ? As you think about that, take her words to heart.
When we allow the Christ in us be seen in us, then we might be more incline to act with love and compassion. It’s in those moments we begin to understand the power of God’s saving grace. “The immense problems of war, of social injustice, and of the thousand and one ills that beset our world, can be solved only if we begin to see, love, respect, and reverence Christ in the eyes of another, then they will change, and society will change also.”
What this means for us today is simple. When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we can meet cruelty with the compassion of Christ. When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we can face injustice with the fairness of Christ. When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we can speak truth and kindness even when others speak maliciously and lie. We can bring unity to division. Peace to unrest. And calm into anxiety and fear.
Whenever we liberate others with loving and forgiving hearts, our hearts are also set free. When we comfort those who mourn with Christlike compassion, our spirits are comforted as well. When we practice the way of Christ, we become more like him and less like us. We become transformed people.
I think this is what Paul was hinting at when he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God – what is good, acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we live into who God made us to be beloved children who transform and redeem the world back to God. As followers of Christ, it’s our mission to reveal God’s salvific work ushering in the kingdom of heaven, right here and right now, by living Christ who perfectly embodied Torah.
Richard Rohr wrote, “Humanity needs a Jesus whose life can save you even more than his death. A Jesus we can practically imitate, and who sets the bar for what it means to be fully human.” This is why the concept of ‘ma’ is so important. In those times of waiting, we can fill the gap by living Christ. I like to breath slowly and say this mantra over and over as I wait:
Christ come into me
Christ come out of me
Christ come into me
Christ come out of me
Practicing mindfulness and ma is so simple anyone can do it. Anyone can offer a smile or a kind word to a stranger. Or text to a friend that simply says, “Thank you for being in my life.” Simple acts of kindness and generosity are a great way to let Christ shine through you. But remember, in order for Christ to be seen, Christ must always be present and visible.
And for some strange reason God has chosen us for this task. God entrusted you and me to give birth to the Christ within us so others may be awoken to his presence and see God’s glory. Let us go now, out into the world like “a garden that causes what is sown to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.” Our world needs the light of Christ to shine through the darkness we are mired in.
So go be the incarnation of Christ by living out the Gospel with your life.
Go give birth to God’s divine and perfect love “as faithfully and fearlessly as a woman in labor who holds nothing back in order to bring new life into the world” (Rohr).
Go and shine the light of love and life that is in you...now and forever, Amen
let us pray:
Gracious and Giving God
open our eyes so we can see you.
Open our hearts so we can receive you.
Open our hands so we can share you.
Open our mouths so we can proclaim you.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008; pp. 50-55.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. New York: Convergent, 2019; p. 107.
Yesterday I was listening to a podcast from Jack Kornfield, who told a story of Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are. One day Sendak got a card from a little boy named Jim that had a cute little drawing on it. The boy’s efforts impressed Sendak so much that he sent Jim a thank you card with an original wild thing drawing on the inside.
A few weeks later the boy’s mother wrote back with a follow up letter saying, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.”
Maurice Sendak said, “That was the highest compliment I have ever received.” The boy didn't care that the drawing was worth thousands of dollars. He saw it. He loved it. He ate it. A great reminder for us who still hunger for something greater than ourselves.
Advent is a time God has given to us to wait with awe and wonder. It’s not a passive wait but a time to be actively engaged in God’s kingdom. And one way to engage is to devour God’s word. Not literally eat the Bible, like Jim might have done. But to feast on the liturgical smorgasbord of stories that have been passed down through the centuries to nourish our souls.
Today we are going back to the ancient texts of Isaiah. This particular passage is the beginning of what is known as Second Isaiah. It was written by an anonymous writer some 50 years after Babylon invaded Judah and dragged her citizens into exile. Some 30 centuries later, this poetic prophecy provides God’s people with some words of hope and promise, as well as some basic instructions on how to be better prepare for Christmas.
READ: Isaiah 40:1-11
Like Second Isaiah pointed out, as the people sit in exile, they’ve had decades to think about the error of their ways. This poetic song begins like a scene in a movie where a criminal stands before the parole board who judge him. It’s up to him to defends himself - showing his remorse and a penitent heart. Whatever he is guilty of, he has done his time and he believes he deserves to be freed.
God’s people were guilty for sure. They had turned away from God, putting their trust in earthly powers. They believed God was punishing them by abandoning them to the hands of their enemy. But in reality, they were the one’s who abandoned God.
As they plead for mercy and salvation God sends hopeful words of comfort through this prophetic voice: “Comfort my people…she has served her penalty…received double for all her sins…A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’”
While most of our country is gearing up for the holidays, trimming the trees and decking the halls, the world is still suffering under the heavy weight of this horrific pandemic. In many ways, COVID has invaded our way of life and has forced us into exile. Today in Southern California stay at home orders go into effect, travel restrictions are being put in place, and I would bet that getting a vaccine is on top of everyone’s Christmas list.
If we have learned anything from our sacred scriptures, it’s knowing that our pain and suffering is only temporary. Like the poetic prophet wrote, “The grass withers, the flowers fade; but God’s word endures forever.” This is our reminder to use our time of Advent wait, to prepare the way of the Lord who will come in the most unexpected way: Not like a powerful king with a vicious army hellbent on revenge, but like a small and fragile baby, born into poverty to a couple of unknown kids.
More than that, when I look at this sculpture, I see Joseph and am reminded of who I am as a father – to my kids and everyone else’s. Jesus was not his son. Yet Joseph chose to welcome Jesus into his heart and home. He chose to look after Jesus and protect him, even though he had no obligation to do so. Joseph was faithful to God, whose “word endures forever.”
Then there’s Mary, who reminds me that we are all called to be Mothers of Christ if for no other reason than Christ is always in need of being born. Mary teaches me how to live in the tension between my present circumstances and the promise of God.
As a pregnant teenage girl, Mary had much to be afraid of. What would people think? What shame would she bring upon her family? Would Joseph be there for her? Would her baby live? Yet she remained faithful to God’s promise. When her family narrowly escaped Herod’s genocide and was forced to be political refugees in a foreign land, Mary’s faithfulness in God stood firm. And then, at the foot of the cross, crushed by a pain no mother should have to bear, Mary trusted God whose “word endures forever.”
And of course, there’s the baby lying in the manger. It’s a universal image of Christmas that’s so familiar that we forget God chose to come to us in human weakness. This simple and familiar portrayal of Jesus reminds me of my own vulnerability and weakness; and my need to rely on something greater than myself.
When I see this baby, I also remember that I too am a beloved child of God; swaddled in unconditional and steadfast love of the One whose word endures forever. More importantly, when I see Jesus in this hand-carved wooden manger my mind sees him on another wooden structure and I think about the sacrifice he made for my behalf.
A wooden cross or a wooden statue, I am reminded that all things are finite, but God’s Word endures forever. And so, we leave it out to remind ourselves of the incarnate promise that is made manifest day-after-day and year-after-year.
The more I think about it, Advent is our reminder that God is not finished with us. As we wait for God’s plan to unfold, we wait with purpose. Preparing the way for Christ to come, by preparing our hearts and hands to be faithful like his. To quote St. Paul, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6)
We prepare the way of the Lord in all the ways we love - bringing hope to the hopeless and forgiveness the unforgivable. As Jesus taught us, we proclaim God’s promise of peace, by being peacemakers. We prepare the path of righteousness with consistent and steady footsteps; walking humbly, loving freely, and fighting for justice for all people.
Advent is a time to remember that Christ not only came to be with us, but to be in us to reveal God’s glory so that “all people shall see it together.”
This is what it means to be the church, the visible witness crying out in the wilderness – preparing the way for the one more powerful than us. As the psalmist sung, “Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.” Where righteousness and peace are practiced, God is present.
Advent is a time to prepare a path that will lead God right into our hearts! So as we wait, let us participate in the coming of our Lord by tuning our ear to the voices crying out for mercy. And by opening our hands to touch others in need of human tenderness.
Let us go out into the world to meet Christ by being little Christ in the world. For when Christ is alive in each one of us, then Christ will always be present, not just on Christmas Day but every day.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
Worship with us live on Facebook
Sunday at 11:00 a.m.