First Congregational Church
December 28, 2013
First Sunday of Christmas
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The birth of Jesus was celebrated by music: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14).
Christians of the first century continued the tradition of the angels. Historical records from as early as 129 AD document songs written specifically for Christmas celebrations. However, they were primarily written in Latin, and were not called Carols, but hymns. The French word, carole, meaning circle dance, or song of praise and joy, did not originate with Christianity, but with the pagan celebration of winter.
It is interesting that the favorite "Joy to the World" doesn't make a mention of Christmas, or Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, or the star. Even so, it is a good "carol" and it fits with the idea of a Celebration in Song. So let us stand and sing....
"The First Noel" #270
We easily associate candles with the Celebration of Christmas, but handheld light has a greater history. Long before the 1553 of "Bring a Torch," torches, or candles, of ancient Hanukkah's Festival of Lights played an important part in Christmas celebrations in Provence and southern Europe. When "Bring a Torch" came along, it was originally written not for Christmas but as French dance music. When words were added to the melody, they told the story of two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, who went to milk their cows in a manger in Bethlehem, only to find the baby Jesus sleeping in the hay. The two girls ran to town to tell the village of the coming of Christ, and the townspeople came with their own torches to view the sight for themselves. However, they had to keep their voices down so little Jesus could enjoy his dreams. To this day in the Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to church on Christmas Eve while singing the carol.”
"I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve," when sung in Danish, Norwegian or Swedish, takes on the love and popularity of "Away In a Manger" for Scandinavians. Part of the reason for becoming so beloved is because it is short and easy for children to memorize. Prior to the last half of 19th century northern Europe, children were allowed to read only for the purposes of education and moral examples. Marie Wexelsen, being born at the right time, was able to help in the expansion of education - to include boys and girls in receiving general education as well as the ability to read (and sing) for amusement as well as learning. So let us sing with a lilt, first number 19 and then number 62 in the spiral books.
"Bring a Torch" S 19
"I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve S 62
As you get ready number 89 in the spiral book, I encourage you to get #261 in the red hymnal ready to follow. Mystery plays were religious dramas that provided sacred entertainment, since attending pagan dramas was forbidden, and they provided opportunities for religious education. The religious dramas were also performed in the language of the people, rather than church Latin and allowed for instruments, which were not allowed in churches.
"Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine" has been traced back to the mystery plays in 16th century Leipzig, Germany. There is an intimacy in this song not found in all carols, and this one allows us to come in and be right there, right with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.
While we're at the manger, it wouldn't be right to leave before singing "Away In the Manger." No Christmas song is more loved than this tender children's carol. With its simply worded expression of love for the Lord Jesus and trust in His faithful care, the hymn appeals to young and old alike. Like the song "Jesus Loves Me," we generally learn "Away In a Manger" as young children, and it tends to stay with us through our adult lives. It is the musical rendering of Luke 2:7.
“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7 NIV) Let us go to the stable and sing "Joseph Dearest", ladies singing the first verse, men singing the second and everyone on the refrain, and then "Away in a Manger."
"Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine" S 89
"Away in a Manger" #261
"Love Came Down at Christmas" was written about the same time as the previous two hymn carols. While we don't know much about the real composer of "Away In a Manger", we know a fair bit about Christina Georgina Rossetti, the composer of "Love Came Down at Christmas. She came from a family steeped in the arts. She was a sickly child, so her deep faith is thought to be partially due to the solace she found in writing. Her father, Gabriele, was a professor of Italian at King’s College, and brothers Dante and William developed the 19th century art movement, the pre-Raphaelite era. Oh, and a family friend was Lewis Carroll, author of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." The beauty of this little carol hymn is that it is a personification of "love," that word being mentioned 12 times in three short stanzas.
"There's a Song in the Air" is the first home-grown hymn-carol sung today. Both Josiah Holland and Karl Harrington were New England boys. Although word-writer Holland dropped out of high school for poor health, he went on to get a medical degree before giving up his practice to become the owner and editor of a newspaper. As the poem's popularity grew, being published in his own newspaper, three noted composers took note and wrote their own melodies for it. It was the version that Karl Harrington wrote while on vacation that became the one we will sing after number 102 in the spiral book.
"Love Came Down at Christmas" S 102
"There's a Song in the Air" S 160
Again, you may want to ready number 128 in the spiral book and #258 in the red hymnal.
Isaiah wrote - some 700 years before Jesus' birth - a prophecy that we consider to have been fulfilled with the birth of Christ. "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you. (Isaiah 60:1–2)
When we get to the first of the next two hymn-carols, it may take a moment to realize the seeming "mistake". The people who followed the star to Jesus weren’t the shepherds, they were the wise men. The shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth by the angels and went to Bethlehem to see him. But in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” we get an amalgamation of those two stories. There is no mistake, however. The wise men were thought to be wealthy kings or magicians from far-off lands, bringing lavish, expensive gifts to welcome Christ. These were not people to whom slaves could relate.
There are a few Christmas songs that come in the form of a spiritual. Spirituals were means of teaching the story of Christmas, along with secret communications oblivious to slave owners.
If the wise men were on one end of the social spectrum, the shepherds would have been on the extreme other end. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they were considered religious and social outcasts who were looked upon with suspicion. Slaves could relate to being outcasts, to being looked upon with suspicion. In the shepherds, they found a kindred spirit, another group of people without a home. So, in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” by replacing the kingly travelers with people of no status, the slaves were subtly creating a revolution in status for themselves.
"Go, Tell It On the Mountain" doesn't have a composer, but a compiler. That's because like many African American songs, it was handed down orally, from plantation to plantation. John Work recorded it and was finally able to put it to paper . As we began our service by joining the singing of the angels, so shall we end it, first with "Rise Up" and lastly with "Go, Tell It." Let us stand and sing.
"Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow" S 128
"Go, Tell It on the Mountain" #258
First Congregational Church
December 24, 2013
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Congratulations! You’re here! No more gift wrapping, food preparation, or miles to go – at least in the next hour or so. So snuggle in, because it’s time to be still – that the Holy Spirit can wash over you.
Over the years, the attempt has been to keep large parts of this service the same – not because it is easy or time efficient, but we can find welcome and comfort in tradition and the familiar. Sometimes a word or a song will take us back to a time that was important and/or meaningful. Other times we know that we are in the midst of a memory in the making.
Not that this is about me, but the part that makes it Christmas for me, is when the scriptures have been read, the carols have been sung, and the candles are all lit as we are singing “Silent Night”. None of you are more holy than you are at that moment. For that time during those three verses, it’s as if everything comes together.
There is a sentence in the book of John, just after the first of the scripture readings tonight. It says “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” (Jn 1:5) Since human beings have existed, light and darkness have held symbolic and religious meanings. Perhaps it grew out of that dim era, when our ancient ancestors began to learn to use and control fire, and found instead of huddling all night in the cold and the dark, a small fire offered a source of warmth and light, of comfort and security.
These days we light candles for a number of reasons: romance, ambiance, power outages. In the weeks approaching Christmas we light special candles because they speak to us the hope that springs eternal in the human heart. They remind us of a dark time, in a desolate country, how the birth of Jesus Christ signaled for all peoples the eternal hope of the eventual triumph of good, whatever the current state of human history.
Light was the first of God’s creations. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” Light shines in the darkness, not over against the darkness, or from above. A light shining out of the darkness, this is a new thing. Then Jesus told us, “You are the light of the world.” (Mt 5 14)
This is the night we celebrate the source of the light. The light comes through us, not from us. Not all the darkness in the world can extinguish the smallest flame. We celebrate the light that has come into the world, and we take it with us - to bring comfort and hope - to those we love and everyone else. So let us continue with this Spirit-washing, memory-making, comfort-bringing, celebrate of the birth of Emmanuel: God with us.
First Congregational Church
December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Christmas Season Sunday
Isaiah 61:1-3, Philippians 4:4-9, Luke 1:39-56
"A Christmas Story"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.
It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn't been enough money to buy me the rifle that I'd wanted for Christmas. We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible.
After supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn't in much of a mood to read Scriptures. But Pa didn't get the Bible; instead he bundled up again and went outside. I couldn't figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn't worry about it long though; I was too busy wallowing in self-pity.
Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his beard. "Come on, Matt," he said. "Bundle up good, it's cold out tonight." I was really upset then. Not only wasn't I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see. We'd already done all the chores, and I couldn't think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this.
But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one's feet when he'd told hem to do something, so I got up and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn't know what.
Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we were going to do wasn't going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell. We never hitched up this sled unless we were going to haul a big load.
Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn't happy. When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. "I think we'll put on the high sideboards," he said. "Here, help me." The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger with the high sideboards on.
After we had exchanged the sideboards, Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood---the wood I'd spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all Fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said something. "Pa," I asked, "what are you doing?"
You been by the Widow Jensen's lately?" he asked. The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight. Sure, I'd been by, but so what? "Yeah," I said, "Why?" "I rode by just today," Pa said. "Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They're out of wood, Matt."
That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him. We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait.
When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand. "What's in the little sack?" I asked. "Shoes. They're out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunnysacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn't be Christmas without a little candy."
We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen's pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn't have much by worldly standards.
Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn't have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy?
Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us; it shouldn't have been our concern. We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, and then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, "Who is it?" "Lucas Miles, Ma'am, and my son, Matt. Could we come in for a bit?"
Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp. "We brought you a few things, Ma'am," Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it.
She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children---sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last. I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out.
"We brought a load of wood too, Ma'am," Pa said. He turned to me and said, "Matt, go bring in enough to last awhile. Let's get that fire up to size and heat this place up." I wasn't the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and as much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too.
In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks with so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn't speak. My heart swelled within me and a joy that I'd never known before, filled my soul. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people.
I soon had the fire blazing and everyone's spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn't crossed her face for a long time. She finally turned to us. "God bless you," she said. "I know the Lord has sent you. The children and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us."
In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I'd never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it.
Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes.
Tears were running down Widow Jensen's face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn't want us to go. I could see that they missed their Pa, and I was glad that I still had mine.
At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, "The Mrs. wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We'll be by to get you about eleven. It'll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt, here, hasn't been little for quite a spell." I was the youngest. My two brothers and two sisters had all married and had moved away. Widow Jensen nodded and said, "Thank you, Brother Miles. I don't have to say, "'May the Lord bless you,' I know for certain that He will."
Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn't even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, "Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn't have quite enough.
Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that. But on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunnysacks and I knew what I had to do. Son, "I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand."
I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it. Now the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen's face and the radiant smiles of her three children.
For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night; he had given me the best Christmas of my life.
Let us pray. Loving God, we are grateful for this season of waiting to celebrate again the birth of your Son. As we continue to wait, help us to look for all those ways we can "wait" more fully - to be your angels on earth where you need us. Help us to trust that when things don't go our way, that you have a greater plan. Lead us to do what is needful, and to let go of what is not crucial. Shine your light on us, Bright Star of Bethlehem, that we may walk in your light. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 15, 2013
Third Sunday in Advent
"Star of Unity"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There's a little video running around on the internet about an airline called WestJet. As guests were waiting at their gate for two particular flights, there was an interactive video where Santa was talking to the guests about what they wanted for Christmas. While the flights were in the air, a bunch of the employees from WestJet ran out to purchase those Christmas wishes, brought them back to the terminal, wrapped and labeled them, and sent them down the baggage carousel. The guests were gifted with everything from socks and underwear to flight vouchers and even a large screen tv.
The brilliant part of the video was that while the focus was obviously on the gifting, especially as it was the night before Christmas, they also lifted up the fact that it took working together to make it happen. I don't think we think about it that way, but anything that we do around here is a great display of our unity: from moving a mountain of shoeboxes from one level to another to hosting a little hot dog sale on the front lawn, to the decorating of an entire church for Christmas. When we undertake such endeavors, we are living out the prayer that Jesus prayed that last night in the Garden. He had been praying for the disciples, but in the passage for today, he prays for us.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Thank you, Ann. If we had been there that night, I wonder if any of us would have been able to take in the surroundings. Was there a whisper of a breeze or a good wind? Were there crickets singing? We do know that it was a full moon, because he was crucified the day after the Passover, and Passover is to be celebrated during the full moon of the current season. But were there clouds? Could the stars be seen? Did the Star of Unity, the Star of Bethlehem, the Star of Hope and Creation shine down on Jesus and the sleeping disciples? Since stars live millions of years, the same stars that shined on them shine on us.
Now let’s see here. [Rummaging through the box] What a mess! (Hold up the twisted lights.) Every year I tell myself that when I put the decorations away after the New Year, I am going to organize them and mark all the boxes. But what I end up doing is just throwing it all in a box and I figure that I can figure it all out in December. Grandmother, you would NOT be happy. If I could just find an end....
No, Grandmother, you would not be happy with me and this mess! You were always such an organized person. You seemed to have everything together. Everything planned. Everything figured out. “A place for everything and everything in its place.” That’s what you liked to say. I wish I was a little bit more like you. What a mess! Pause
You went through a lot in your life, yet you kept it all together somehow. Grandfather served in Korea … and had to leave you all alone with Father as an infant. Then Father went off to Viet Nam … and you prayed and prayed and prayed … that God would keep him safe. And cousin Bobby, he went off to Iraq … I’m not sure he’ll ever be the same. Great men. They served their country well. But it’s hard on families, all this war and hatred. A mixed up world, that’s what it is. Pause
And there was other stuff too. Divorces in the family. The layoffs at the plant. Kacey and her problems. Yet you kept us all unified through it all. You kept us laughing and loving and caring for one another. In spite of this mixed up, messed up and broken world, you did your best to keep us all together.
(Frustrated at the knots.) Shoot. It’s a mixed-up and messed-up world. ... I’d better get something to clean this up…Exit.
Thank you, Andy. Part of the reason that the stable scene in Bethlehem has such appeal is because it helps us to set aside the mixed-up and messed-up world in which we live. Granted, it was probably mixed-up and messed-up for Mary and Joseph. But compared to any of the number of things we can read in the newspaper or hear at the barber or beauty shop, a smelly dark stable may seem like a beautiful place. Whether there were clouds the night Jesus was born, regardless of the moon phase, keeping watch over everyone in the stable that night were the stars. The silent sentinels of the sky unite us with Jesus' death and birth and with all our ancestors before him.
The birth that we await to celebrate restored the brokenness between us and God and it gives us a unity that we can't get any other way. We still live in a disjointed, divided and discordant world. But one of the great Christian authors, A. W. Tozer put it into a practical understanding of our unity.
He said, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”
In that same mode, another great Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” A more current Christian writer, Joni Eareckson Tada once wrote, "Believers are never told to become one. We already are one and are expected to act like it.”
In his prayer, his prayer for us, Jesus didn't put any parameters on our unity. He didn't say that we would be one in race or religion or eye color or any other way that can divide us. His prayer was that we would be one, as he is in God and God is in him; that God loves us as God loves Christ. That's a big part of the gift we received all those years ago, under the same stars that will shine on us tonight - snow or no snow. As the day we celebrate the Star of Unity shining in all of us comes another week closer, let us enter into that week in prayer.
God of All, we may not always fully appreciate it, but we thank you that you have loved us before you created the world. We thank you for loving us to the point of sending your son, a baby, that we would know what it is to be in you and you in us. Help us to be mindful that each of those we meet are also in you as you are in them. Remind us that we are tuned to the baby born in a stable, and that the star that shined on him unites us to him as it shines on us. Reinforce this sense of unity as we live out the ministries you set before us.
First Congregational Church
December 8, 2013
Second Sunday in Advent
"The Star of Hope"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
How on earth can it be December 8th? Who stole October and November? A great number of people have put in precious time and the church looks wonderful. But wasn't Thanksgiving just yesterday? This past Friday night, however, at least for me, the world slowed down a bit, and realized that I had been more tuned up than I'd realized.
Although it's been going for some 21 years, Friday was the first time I attended the Leelanau Children's Choir and Youth Ensemble Christmas Madrigal Concert. (Try saying that three times real fast!) I was impressed, and it takes a good bit to impress me when it comes to kids voices. Part of the "being impressed" was facilitated in the accompaniment of our own Linda Davis. Even so, there were some wonderful voices, and some "good friends," I'd not heard for a long while or in those particular arrangements - of songs.
When the concert ended, I realized - that all that singing those cherubs had done, along with some help of the Holy Spirit, I'm sure, that the love and hope and peace and work had sunk into this heart - the one that didn't realize it needed such healing. It wasn't that this heart was suffering from Grinch-itis or any other anomaly. It was more like being a quart low on the eager anticipation and waiting for the Christ-child to be born again. So it is from that place of hope - for the re-alignment of hearts that may also need such healing, that we come to the oddest of scripture passages for Advent.
It's a passage that Paul wrote to the churches in Rome because they were Jews and Gentiles meeting together in the Jewish synagogues. It is helpful to take in that understanding, because it meant that some of the congregants may not have heard about Jesus as Messiah and his resurrection were worshiping with those who embraced it. But both groups were well acquainted with the Old Testament. So what's "cool" about this morning's scripture passage is that it drops hints - little reference bombs probably intended to "catch" the ear of the listeners, to help them understand all the more why Jesus was the Messiah. Thing is, we probably miss those "hints."
They were references - quotes - from the Old Testament. Since most of us are not Old Testament scholars, as the passage is read, when it comes to one of those places where it is rather direct quote, the reference will be inserted.
As Jean makes her way to the pulpit, I'll make one more little historic link. The reference, the Root of Jesse will come up - pun intended. Sometime, when you have 10 or 15 minutes, take a gander at the very first chapter of the New Testament. It is a lot of names. But some of them might be more familiar than you think. And all of them give Ancestry.com a run for its money. But for this morning's point of reference, Jesse was the great David's father.
8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews (the chosen ones) on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and,
moreover, that the Gentiles (all of us) might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: (2 Samuel 22:50 and Psalm 18:49) “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.”
10 Again, it says, (Deut. 32:43) “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”11 And again, (Psalm 117:1) “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.”
12 And again, Isaiah says, (Isaiah 11:10) “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.”
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Jean. Like I said, not the typical Advent scripture passage. But within those few verses, over and over, Paul makes the case that Jesus was the promised one. Although geometry is a better friend to some people than others, in algebra there is a thing called the "if-then" statement.
If you skydive without a parachute, then you will have a really bad day. If you live in northern lower Michigan, then there is a possibility you may need a snowmobile suit for Halloween. To the point, if there were 351 prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament, and Jesus filled everyone of them, then he was the Messiah. If Jesus fulfilled the "hope" of the people of the Old Testament, then he will fulfill the promises made in the New Testament. The crazy thing about Jesus being the Messiah is that it is not something relevant only to the time of his birth.
I wonder if all the lights work properly? [looking at the lit tree] Ah yes! I wonder where the star is? The star goes on first. That’s tradition. (Rummaging some more, she says…) There it is!
Grandma, you gave me this star when I moved into my very first apartment. Remember how cold that winter was? I moved in right in the middle of December. You helped carry in boxes in spite of the wind and the snow that day. Grandma, you were a real trooper. You helped me set up my house and get things in all the right places. You told me just how to organize my kitchen. At least you didn’t make me alphabetize my spices like Dad wants me to do! Remember how we pulled out that little Christmas tree and set it up. I didn’t have much for decorations or ornaments or anything. It wasn’t much better than a Charlie Brown tree. You looked at that tree and said that it just wasn’t finished. When I asked why, you said that every Christmas tree needs a star at the top.
When I came home from work that next Monday, there was a box outside my door. When I saw what was in it, I knew exactly where it came from. [Proudly] It has been the topper on my Christmas tree ever since.
And then you got cancer. Wow, grandma, you went through a lot! Surgeries. Chemo. Radiation. The whole nine yards. But you were a real trooper through it all. In spite of everything they put you through, you had this…this positive attitude. It was really quite amazing to watch. I remember that time when you were in hospice care and you were dying and I was crying uncontrollably and you looked at me and mouthed these words…. “Never lose hope.” Never lose hope.
Thank you, Naomi. As I was prepping for this message, I came across a story about two nameless women: one the story teller and the other the friend. The friend apparently had a son that had attempted suicide, who was in some psychiatric ward. The crazy thing is that it was part of the mother - the friend - that had actually died. It seemed that they were skipping church, because it was the first Sunday in Advent - the one traditionally given over to hope. How do people whose son attempted suicide find hope again? Perhaps that is part of the bittersweet of holidays, that for those that really need the joy - they can't seem to find it - no matter how hard they try.
Neither of them drank, and not wanting to engage in chocolate therapy, the storyteller asked if her friend had time to step into the conservatory down by the river. Ironically, it was a butterfly conservatory, so perhaps the lighting and flying might help the friend believe again in things unseen.
In the lightness of the air in the glass dome, the friend was able to breathe. The waterfall kept murmuring of things coming from somewhere else. After the struggle of one foot bravely going in front of the other, they stood before the thin sheens of chrysalises. It didn't seem possible - that out of silken threads, wings unfolded wet. But they watched it happen. There were no words. Simply witnessing. They sat at the waterfall and waited.
Finally the friend said, "A blue one...." She said it quiet. “I need just one photo of a blue morpho butterfly, and then we really have to go.” Yes, the morpho butterfly — whose very name means changed. We all need to believe that things can change. So they tried.
Sneaking up on blooms and leaves, hoping to get just one shot, they looked like bad detectives in a cheap 1970's rerun. Everywhere morpho butterflies slapped shut their inner blue wings, stared back steely at them with their drab outer brown wings. Please, Lord – just give her one open spread of blue wings. For crying prayers out loud, just a bit of hope to take out of here. They waited. Did what the wisest have always done: Waited and Hoped. And the morpho butterfly just outwaited them.
Finally the friend was back to looking flat with resignation, the metaphor of hope quickly turning into a mockery. "My camera battery is about dead..." She didn't have to say that there was a lot more deadened than that. "Let's go."
As the story teller was making motions to leave, a conservatory park ranger brushes past her and whispers "Stop. One of the morphos has landed on you. Right on you." The storyteller didn't move, but turned slow to look for the stubborn outer brown wings.
“And he’s wide open blue.” The park ranger kneels. “You don’t understand — they don’t do this. They’re the ones that don’t land on people. And they about never rest in their wide open blue.” The friend nods, she knows, mouth wide open, raising her camera, she knows. She clicks, snaps, shoots, takes more. More people stop, take more photos. The park ranger asks for my camera, takes a few more. “You don’t understand,” he whispers… “it’s about impossible to get photos of them with their wings in their open blue.”
I nod – whisper it over the indigo wings open there on my shoulder: “And then sometimes — the impossible unfolds into the possible.”
I look over at my friend… who is brimming. Spilling. Tears are never a sign of weakness. Tears are always the sign of an open heart. And I mouth it to her, like it’s more certain without any sound, like I don’t want it to slip away from either one of us: “HOPE.”
Our scripture passage this morning shines the light of hope on fulfilled prophecies. If God can fulfill them, then God will certainly fulfill the promise of eternal life free of pain and death and every other hard thing. But our passage also shines a light on our own here and now. In the very last sentence, as if passing on a blessing, with a hand resting on your head: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. To get the most we can out of such blessing, we would do best to get ourselves right in the spotlight of such a star of hope. So let us pray.
Creating God and Star of Hope, we are grateful that you were born to bring light into a world that seemed lost in darkness. We are sometimes mystified - sometimes unimpressed by the overcoming of such darkness with your death and resurrection. And yet, if you have already kept great promises in the past, then we can trust you to fulfill the rest, for the day when love and hope and peace will not need to be recognized, because they will be you and all your people will be in you. So help each of us find that place of eager anticipation for the coming of the Christ child, that hearts may be healed, that no one will be a quart low, but all of our hearts overflowing with your joy and peace and hope. Until then, all the stars in this room say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 1, 2013
First Sunday in Advent
"The Star of Creation"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Although part of my brain says it is "wrong" to have snow before Thanksgiving, another part of my brain was loving the quiet that descended from the heavens - and the great excuse for not blowing leaves. Many of you know I really do like to blow snow, but the first two snow blowing opportunities of the season were not all that fun, in large part because the snow was so water-laden. It wasn't until the sunshine yesterday noon that I realized that during all those days, blowing snow or just walking in it, took a fair bit of ground watching, which meant that at least for me, my head was down. It's a smart thing to look for ice and things under the snow that may trip us. But maybe it was the heavenly light of yesterday noon that it dawned on me I had been forgetting to also look up. In that realization, I'm thinking that I may not be the only one that has been distracted from seeing all that is really going on around us.
Since I paid good money to Bethel Theological Seminary, there is a phrase that will come up a lot in this morning's scripture passage. It is "the Word" - with a capital W. It's an interesting little realization that way back in the beginning of the Bible, Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning - God". Our passage for this morning from the beginning of the Gospel of John says, "In the beginning was the Word." Interesting, too, that in the third verse of Genesis 1, it says, "And God said," - which implies that God used words - of some fashion. It is from our scripture passage for this morning that we get the link that Jesus is the Word - with a capital W.
Part of the fun of the Bible is when it takes on the "puzzle" element. And even if we don't perfectly get how all those pieces fit together, if nothing else, sometimes the pieces are so beautiful - in and of themselves, the pieces alone can cause us to lift our heads from that which causes us to miss the beauty with which God surrounds us.
Our scripture passage for this morning may not seem all that typical for a first Sunday in Advent, but in listening to it, you might tip your head back a bit, close your eyes, and allow your mind to create the picture that rises up from it.
John 1:1-14 NIV
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Thank you, Andy. If we were sitting in a theater, Andy would have been on one side of the stage, with a spotlight shining at him, and the rest of the stage would have been in darkness. When he was done with the scripture passage, the lights would darken over him, and they would come up on Marti, who would be on the other side of the stage, and so our eyes would turn to this next vignette.
Grandma ... you always had the most beautiful Christmas trees! I remember how we used to go with Grandpa and cut dow a tree each year. It was always the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving. We'd drive to that small forest out west of town. It was owned by Grandpa's friend. We would drive in the pickup back into the woods. We would then trudge through the snow on foot....looking for just the right tree. What an adventure! It was always so quiet, so beautiful, so serene.
And Grandpa, he was picky ... with a capital P. I'd point to trees. You would point to trees. He would take a quick look and say... "Nah, not that one!" And we would keep on looking. Then, when we finally found THE one, he would cut it down with his old saw. We'd pile it into the pickup and head back to town. You would make us up some hot chocolate to get ourselves warm, while Grandpa wrestled with the tree and got it into a stand. Once it was all set up, Grandpa would stand back and say ... "Now isn't that a pretty piece of God's creation right here in our living room."
But do you remember that one year, Grandma? The tree Grandpa picked out wasn't so great. Lopsided, that's what it was. In fact, it was SO lopsided, he finally had to take some wire and attach it to the trunk and then nail the wire to the wall just to hold it up. But even though that tree was not so great, he still looked at it and said... "Now isn't that a pretty piece of God's creation right here in our living room." Grandma ... I guess we are all a bit lopsided. Maybe there is a lesson somewhere in all of that?
Thank you, Marti. I love it that even one of my sermon writing heroes - Barbara Brown Taylor - uses Facebook. And I love it that she shared a little blurb this week that sort of made a lightbulb go off in my head. She said, ""God reaches out to us in countless ways through the material things of our lives: there are altars everywhere with sacraments just waiting to be discovered and celebrated. Anyone who has made annual pilgrimages home for Thanksgiving knows that the dining room table is one such altar, where sacraments of turkey and sweet potato pie evince the grace of a family whose loving of one another may from time to time far exceed their liking."
It wasn't the part about the love exceeding the liking of family that caught my attention, although it perhaps caught someone else. It was the part about the "altars everywhere with sacraments just waiting to be discovered and celebrated." The lopsided tree from the vignette is one such altar. From there, the potential altars for meeting God are endless! Wrapping a gift, preparing a particular food or meal, going to church - especially on Christmas Eve - even a snowblower can be an "altar with sacraments just waiting to be discovered and celebrated." And I'm pretty certain that few - if any other sermons over the earth today will link snowblowers with holy altars of discovery and celebration.
Maybe the lesson for this morning is the reminder that God not only uses lopsided trees to remind us of God's care for us, but that God uses - of all things - a baby to remind us of God's love for us. Maybe the lesson is to use the opportunity of "traditions" and preparations to remind us that God can - and does - speak to us words of beauty and inspiration. Maybe the lesson is that God - who created the world - with Christ and through Christ - and then gave us Christ - can create new "slates" and directions and lights for us to follow when we've somehow lost our way or been looking down for too long. Maybe the reminders each one of us needs comes through the scripture, or the vignette or Our Lord's Supper. Whatever the lesson God has for you - in this time of worship - be cognizant, too, of the Star of Creation that was present way back at the beginning of the beginning, shines on us, that our Advent waiting begins with blessing and the largesse of the same star that pointed to the Christ child all those years ago. So let the light shine as we prepare our hearts.
Let us pray. Star Creator and Soul Lover, we thank you for the endless altars that surround us, with sacraments waiting to be discovered and celebrated. We are especially grateful for the sacrament you gave us through Christ on his last earthly night. But thank you, too, for the altars of coffee cups and Christmas cards and waiting. Remind us in the coming week of that which you created and that which you are still creating - hope and love and joy and peace. In the awe and blessedness of being part of such creation, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.