First Congregational Church
December 31, 2017
First Sunday after Christmas
History of Christmas Carols Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" #258 (three verses)
Like sitting amidst the Christmas wrappings and taking in the glow and delight of excited children, today we sit amidst the Christmas carols and their own beauty. In their mere singing, however, we can miss some of their depth and connectivity. So in addition to their singing, we will hear some of their stories, to make this only Sunday in the Christmas season this year more earnest and complete.
In regard to our opening carol, throughout time, mountains have held a fascination for the Judeo-Christian world, representing the holy presence of God and a place set apart, not unlike the curtain in the temple separating God from the priests. Not just everyone could go up the mountain to be in God’s presence, so it was Moses who received the Ten Commandments. In the Gospel, Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, an event signifying the full embodiment of the divine nature and holiness of Christ and he gave his most important sermon - on a mount.
It was the ten person ensemble called the Fisk Jubilee Singers that really brought about the popularity of our first carol. African American Fisk University was about to permanently close it’s doors due to debt. Taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, the Jubilee Singers departed on October 6, 1871, from Nashville on a difficult, but ultimately successful eighteen-month tour, that not only saved the University, but elevated the spiritual to an art form.
Sans Day Carol S 130 (four verses)
The Holly and the Ivy S 154
Our next two carols practically beg to be partnered with each other. In fact, mentally, I’ve referred to them as the “holly” songs.
The Sans Day Carol is named because the melody and the first three verses were originally transcribed in the 19th century from the singing of a villager in St. Day, Cornwall, named after a Breton saint venerated in the same parish. It was discovered and collected by the Borough of Penzance’s Head Gardner, a Mr. W. D. Watson, from a man of fifty or sixty years named Thomas Beard.
It is said that the second carol, The Holly and The Ivy, was the first Christmas hymn or carol which appeared in Rome in the fourth century, although the first recorded appearance of the carol doesn’t occur until the 1800’s.
In Scandinavia, the evergreen varieties have long been revered; a sign of defiance to cold and a symbol of life’s continuity. Holly was thought to be the home of wandering spirits. It was hung in homes to assure the occupants good luck. It was assumed that the "points" would snag the evil-intentioned and prevent their entering. A syrup made from holly allegedly cures coughs and a sprig of holly on a bedpost assures one of pleasant dreams.
If ever there were songs that embodied the use of Christian symbolism, these two carols are they. Living for 200 years or more, maintaining its bright colors during the winter season, the ever-green holly leaves represent eternal life and is a natural decoration associated with the Christian holiday.
More specifically, the holly represents Jesus and the ivy represents Mary. Beyond that, the sharpness of the leaves help to recall the crown of thorns worn by Jesus; the red berries serve as a reminder of the drops of blood that were shed for salvation; and the shape of the ivy leaves, which resemble flames, can serve to reveal God's burning love for God’s people. While holly is most often pictured as having red berries, the berries come in other colors too. One tradition says that white berries represent Jesus’ purity, green berries the cross of wood, and black berries his death.
Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine S 89 (two verses)
There’s a Song in the Air S 160 (four verses)
The next two carols came to my mind as the manger lullabies for this morning. In fact, an alternate title for Joseph Dearest is the Song of the Crib. The composer of the tune and the author of the words to this carol aren’t known, but it was most probably used in a Mystery Play in 15th or 16th century Germany. Mystery plays were events in the community that took place beyond the established masses of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming opportunities for the teaching of doctrine and theological insight. They were especially popular because people were forbidden to attend pagan plays.
It’s actually quite remarkable that the second of this carol package, “There’s a Song in the Air,” actually came to be. Josiah Holland was born to a poor, struggling family in Massachusetts, and after working in a factory to help the family finances, he went on to Berkshire Medical College where he graduated in 1844. After attempting to establish a medical practice in western Massachusetts, he gave it up and moved to the south, but didn’t find much satisfaction there, either. He eventually moved back to the north and took up a position as the editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper, working under different pseudonyms. Perhaps the verbiage takes on a new luster when we are reminded that they were written during one of the darkest period of our nation’s history, that of our Civil War.
Of the Father’s Love Begotten #240 (three verses)
Of the Father’s Love Begotten is perhaps the oldest hymn that many congregations sing. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, “the first great poet of the Latin church,” lived from 348-c. 413. He was a poet from northern Spain and a successful lawyer who became a judge, and didn’t begin writing poetry until the age of 57. Some one hundred years before Prudentius, an heresy broke out in the church, that God the Father and the Son did not co-exist throughout eternity. Not only does Prudentius paint the picture of God and Christ being equal, but he reminds us that the heights of heaven, angels and dominions bow before them - all of the cosmos from heaven to earth gives witness to the co-eternal and co-equal nature of the Son.
As for icing on the cake, Aurelius reminds us in the third verse that the relationship is a Trinity. To make it official, a counsel was held in Nicea - in modern day Turkey, from which history was presented with the Nicean Creed. As Congregationalists, we don’t officially hold to any creeds, as we are all supposed to come to our own understandings and articulations of our beliefs and faith. But sometimes, it’s nice to have a starting point.
Incidentally, “Of the Father’s Love” first appears in print in 1582 in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a collection of seventy-four sacred and secular church and school songs of medieval Europe. That Finnish/Swedish songbook still crops up every now and again, as it held a fair number of our modern Christmas carols together over the centuries.
Good King Wenceslas S 47
Long have I waited to inform you all that Good King Wenceslas went out to his local pizza parlor and ordered his usual: a deep pan, crisp and even.
For those of you wondering, yes, Good King Wenceslas is the same tune for the other Christmas carol, Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.
And yes, Virginia, there was indeed a noble Wenceslas. He was not a king, however, but the Duke of Bohemia. He was a good and honest and strongly principled man - as the song about him indicates - too good, perhaps, because in 929 he was murdered by his envious and wicked younger brother.
The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a “king”. And just to make the waters a little muddier, this Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.
His fame arose because of braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.
There is, however, another layer not often noted in this hymn and that which we just sang. Not only were both first published in the Swedish/Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, both were translated by a John M. Neale. In case that name is familiar, he also wrote "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”
Bring a Torch S 19 (two verses)
No tour of Christmas nationalities would be complete without one from France, our next one originating in Provence. Bring a Torch was not originally meant to be sung at Christmas as it was considered dance music for French nobility.
The song title refers to two female farmhands who have found the baby and his mother in a stable. Excited by this discovery, they run to a nearby village to tell the inhabitants, who rush to see the new arrivals. Visitors to the stable are urged to keep their voices quiet, so the newborn can enjoy his dreams.
To this day, on Christmas Eve in the Provence region, children dressed as shepherds and milkmaids carry torches and candles while singing the carol, on their way to Midnight Mass. In the weird ways of the world, this song was perhaps partly responsible for the tradition of erecting nativity crèches in towns.
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow S 128 (two verses)
Like so many other spirituals, “Rise Up Shepherd” has little definitive information as to its beginnings. Because the song was passed around orally, there are no correct or incorrect editions, rather there are endless variations. The inconsistencies make for a better understanding as to why the mention of a star is made with the shepherds, rather than the wise men. Also unique about this song is that while most Christmas hymns focus on the adoration of the Christ child, this spiritual (like “Go,Tell it on the Mountain”) is about discipleship.
The first stanza tells us that it is Christ whom we are to rise and follow. The second stanza reminds us that our commitment to this following must be as complete as it was for the disciple Levi. “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28 NIV).
"Ding Dong Merrily on High"
The most obscure of this morning’s carols, in terms of historic information, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” comes from the mid 1500’s in France. The melody was found in one of the most valuable dance books on 16th century dance: containing information on social ballroom behavior and on the interaction of musicians and dancers.
Like it’s partner, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is a macaronic song: one utilizing two or more languages. Most of the words are English, but the “Gloria” of the refrain is Latin.
As we take our leave this morning, may we take at least one carol with us into the week, to feed our hearts and minds and souls with the Good News of a Child Born in Bethlehem.
Let us stand and sing our final carol, #31 in the spiral books.
First Congregational Church
December 24, 2017
“The Gift of One Like Us"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It really is a joy to have you all together this evening. Whether you are familiar with this church home or you’re a few-timer, there is no other gathering in the world - never has been - never will be again - this particular group of strangers, individuals and families. On top of that, any stores that you might need probably aren’t open until Tuesday, so all that’s left is to enjoy your efforts to get here and put aside any regrets or worries, because from here on out, this is the Eve of one of the greatest moments in the history of our world and all time.
Maybe Mary and Joseph felt a little of the enormity of that night, having the experiences with the angels and prophecies of the birth to come. But chances are they weren’t thinking about all that; being caught up in the very human event of birthing a baby. The stable was no Howard Johnson’s or John’s Hopkin’s, but like so many of you, they were in the midst of something that would change their lives forever. It is doubtful, however, that they fully understood or could have even begun to understand the enormity of influence their tiny, wrinkly, scrunched up and wailing baby would have on the rest of the word - and eternity.
In that commonplace birth however, the Son of God becoming the Son of Man, the most profound, unfathomable and grace-filled gift was given to us, to give our lives meaning and a connection to eternity that could never have happened any other way. The birth we celebrate this night gives us pause to wonder about God, totally dependable, yet unpredictable, who chose unimportant, humble people to bring the gift to us. This gift of a child gives people, too often treated as things, dignity and value - in the Christ child brings us our identity as true children of God. For all of us, especially those who feel that they don’t matter to anyone, let alone society, this nighty, they know that they matter - most especially to God.
Apparently, Abraham Lincoln once had a dream in which someone said of him, "He is a common-- looking man,” to which Lincoln replied, "Common--looking people are the best in the world; that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them."
In giving us a child’s birth, God elevates our commonplace to a position of importance in a “God-with-us” sort-of-way. The extravagance of this “importance” is revealed in that it is not just for a singular point in time, but for all of eternity. And God gives this gift as if you were God’s most beloved and dearest of heart. So snuggle in, and get ready for the gift that is given again in this evening, as we enter into the Christmas Eve Unison Prayer found in your bulletins.
First Congregational Church
December 24, 2017
4th Sunday in Advent
Luke 1:5-13, 18-19, 26-31
“The Littlest Angel”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Luke 1:5-13, 18-19, 26-31
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.
THE LITTLEST ANGEL From the story by Charles Tazewell
Once upon a time—many, many years ago as time is calculated by humans, but only Yesterday in the Celestial Calendar of Heaven---There was, in Paradise, a thoroughly un-happy, and dejected cherub who was known throughout Heaven as the Littlest Angel.
He was exactly four years, six months, five days, seven hours and forty-two minutes of age when he presented himself to the Gate-keeper and waited for admittance to the Glorious Kingdom of God.
Standing defiantly, he tried to pretend that he wasn’t at all afraid. But his lower lip trembled, and another tear made a new furrow down his already tear-streaked face.
But that wasn’t all. While the kindly Gate-Keeper was entering the name in his great Book, the Littlest Angel, having left home as usual, without a handkerchief, tried to hide the telltale evidence of sniffing. A most un-angelic sound so startled the good Gate-Keeper, that he did something he had never done before in all Eternity. He spilled ink on the page!
From that moment on, the Heavenly Peace was never quite the same. The shrill, earsplitting whistle of the littlest Angel could be heard at all hours through the golden streets. It startled the Patriarch Prophets and disturbed their meditations. Yes, and on top of that, he sang off-key at the singing practice of the Heavenly Choir, spoiling its ethereal effect.
And, being so small that it seemed to take him just twice as long as anyone else to get to nightly prayers, the Littlest Angel always arrived late, and knocked everyone’s wings askew as he darted into place.
Although his behavior might have been overlooked, his appearance was even worse. It saw first whispered among the Cherubim, and then said aloud among the Angels and Archangels, that he didn’t even look like an angel!
His halo was permanently tarnished where he held onto it with one hot little hand when he ran, and he was always running. Even when he stood very still, it never behaved as a halo should. It was always slipping down over his right eye, or over his left eye. Or else it slipped off the back of his head and rolled down some Golden street just so he’d have to chase after it!
Yes, and his wings were neither useful nor ornamental. All Paradise held its breath when the Littlest Angel perched himself like a sparrow on the very edge of a cloud and prepared to take off. He would teeter this way—and that way—but, after much coaxing and a few false starts, he would shut both of his eyes, hold his freckled nose, count up to three hundred and three and then hurl himself into space.
However, owing to the fact that he forgot to move his wings, the Littlest Angel always fell head over halo!
It was also reported that whenever he was nervous, which was most of the time, he bit his wing-tips!
Now anyone can easily understand why the Littlest Angel would sooner or later have have words with the Powers that be and so he was directed to present his small self before an Angel of the Peace. The Littlest Angel combed his hair, dusted his wings and donned an almost clean garment, and then, with a heavy heart, trudged his way to the place of judgment.
He tried to postpone the ordeal by pausing a few moments to read the long list of new arrivals, although all Heaven knew he couldn’t read a word. But at last he slowly approached a doorway on which was mounted a pair of golden scales, signifying that Heavenly Justice was dispensed within. To the Littlest Angel’s great surprise, he heard a merry voice inside---singing!
The Singer, who was known as the Understanding Angel, looked down at the small cherub, and the Littlest Angel instantly tried to make himself invisible by the ingenious process of pulling his head into the collar of his garment, very much like a snapping turtle.
At that, the singer laughed a jolly, heartwarming sound and said “Oh! So you’re the one who’s been making Heaven so un-heavenly! Come here, Cherub, and tell me all about it!”
The Littlest Angel ventured a look. First one eye, and then the other eye. Suddenly, almost before he knew it, he was perched on the lap of the Understanding Angel, and was explaining how very difficult it was for a boy who suddenly finds himself transformed into an angel. Yes, and no matter what the Archangels said, he’d only swung once. Well, twice. Oh, all right then, he’d swung three times on the Golden Gates. But that was just for something to do!’’
That was the whole trouble. There wasn’t anything for a small angel to do. And he was very homesick. Not that Paradise wasn’t beautiful! But the Earth was beautiful, too! Wasn’t it created by God, Himself? There were trees to climb, and brooks to fish, and caves to play a pirate chief, the swimming hole, and sun, and rain, and dark, and dawn, and thick brown dust, so soft and warm beneath your feet!
The Understanding Angel smiled, and in his eyes shown a memory of another small boy from long ago. Then he asked the Littlest Angel what would make him most happy in Paradise. The cherub thought for a moment, and whispered in his ear. “There’s a box. I left it under my bed back home. If only I could have that.” The Understanding angel nodded his head. “You shall have it,” he promised, and a fleet winged Heavenly Messenger was instantly dispatched to bring the box to Paradise.
And then, in all those timeless days that followed, everyone wondered at the great change in the Littlest Angel, for, among all the cherubs in God’s Kingdom, he was the most happy. His conduct and appearance was all that any angel could wish for. And it could be said, and truly said, that he flew like an angel.
Then it came to pass that Jesus, the Son of God, was to be born of Mary, of Bethlehem, of Judea. As the Glorious tiding spread through Paradise, all the angels rejoiced and their voices were lifted to herald the Miracle of Miracles, the coming of the Christ Child.
The Angels and Archangels, the Seraphim and Cherubim, the Gate-Keeper, the Wing-maker, yes, and even the Halo-Smith put aside their usual tasks to prepare their gifts for the Blessed Infant; all but the Littlest Angel. He sat himself down on the top-most step of Paradise and thought.
What could he give that would be most acceptable to the Son of God? At one time, he dreamed of composing a hymn of adoration. But the Littlest Angel was lacking in musical talent.
Then he got excited over writing a prayer! A prayer that would live forever in the hearts of humans, because it would be the first prayer ever to be heard by the Christ Child. But the Littlest Angel was too small to read or write. “What, on earth and in heaven, could a small angel give that would please the Holy Infant?”
The time of the Miracle was very close at hand when the Littlest Angel at last decided on his gift. On the Day of Days, he proudly brought it from its hiding place behind a cloud, and humbly placed it before the Throne of God. It was only a small, rough unsightly box, but inside were all those wonderful things that even a Child of God would treasure!
But it was a small, rough, unsightly box - lying among all those other glorious gifts from all the Angels of Paradise! It contained gifts of such radiant splendor and beauty that Heaven and all the Universe were lighted by their glory. And when the Littlest Angel saw this, he suddenly wished he might reclaim his shabby gift. It was ugly, it was worthless. If only he could hide it away from the sight of God before it was even noticed!
But it was too late! The Hand of God moved slowly over all that bright array of shining gifts, then paused, then dropped, then came to rest on the lowly gift of the Littlest Angel!
The Littlest Angel trembled as the box was opened, and there, before the Eyes of God and all God’s Heavenly Host, was what he offered to the Christ Child. There was a butterfly with golden wings, captured on bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door, and two white stones, found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers. And, at the bottom of the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.
The Littlest Angel wept. Why had he ever thought the box was so wonderful? Why had he dreamed that such utterly useless things would be loved by the Blessed Infant? He turned to run and hide, but he stumbled and fell, and with a cry and clatter of halo, rolled in a ball to the very foot of the Heavenly Throne! There was an ominous silence in the Celestial City, a silence complete and undisturbed save for the sobbing of the Littlest Angel.
Suddenly, The Voice of God, like Divine Music, rose and swelled through Paradise! And the Voice of God spoke, saying, “Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that this small box pleases me most. Its contents are of the Earth and of men, and My Son is born to be King of both. These are the things My Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, regretful, will leave behind when His task is done. I accept this gift in the Name of the Child, Jesus, born of Mary this night in Bethlehem.”
There was a breathless pause, and then the rough box of the Littlest Angel began to glow with a bright, unearthly light, then the light became a lustrous flame, and the flame became a radiant brilliance that blinded the eyes of all the angels!
None but the Littlest Angel saw it rise from its place before the Throne of God. And he, and only he, watched it arch the firmament to stand and shed its clear, white, beckoning light over a stable where a Child was Born.
There it shone on that Night of Miracles, and its light was reflected down the centuries deep in the heart of all mankind. Not many know, but now you do, that the lowly gift of the Littlest Angel was what humanity would forever call “The shining star of Bethlehem!”
May all our humble gifts, at any time of year, so please God and provide light in the darkness. Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 10, 2017
Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
“Comfort and Peace”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning’s sermon introduction is brought to you by the Advent Candle Lighting on breathing and peace, Oxfordshire born operatic tenor, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and bits of George Frederic Handel’s iconic oratorio.
“Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley”
I had never heard of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, but his biography says that while he was encouraged by his parents, there was no thought of taking up singing as a career. Instead he took an agricultural degree and became a farm manager, singing hymns he had learned in church to his herd of cows. Whether you are an opera lover or not, I think most would agree with a singing teacher who told him he was in the wrong job.
This morning’s Old Testament passage is brought to us from the prophet Isaiah. Some 700 years before Jesus would be born, Isaiah foretold a coming destruction of the holy Temple, which, incidentally, happened roughly 120 years after that prophecy. But the Temple was destroyed again in 70 AD, so one has to wonder just what Isaiah was predicting in the first 39 chapters worth of impending disaster and devastation to the Hebrew people. And then, almost as if another personality had kicked in, we have the words the 40th chapter.
Isaiah 40:1-11 (NIV)
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Thank you, Sharon. This morning’s New Testament reading is brought to us from the book of Mark. It’s the earliest of the four Gospels - the earliest of which we have good, solid information. In this coming year, we will undoubtedly hear a number of passages from Mark, the most concise of the writers to a Gentile audience. Rather than giving a list of ancestors like Matthew or setting up the prophecies like Luke or getting all ethereal like John, Mark gets right to the action.
Mark 1:1-8 (NIV)
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Thank you, Bill. After a very long and boring sermon the parishioners filed out of the church saying nothing to the preacher. Toward the end of the line was a thoughtful person who always commented on the sermons.”Pastor, today your sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!” The pastor was thrilled. “No-one has ever said anything like that about my preaching before. Tell me why.” “Well – it reminded me of the Peace of God because it passed all understanding and the Love of God because it endured forever!” It is always my hope and prayer that despite how disjointed any sermon may feel, that at least one little bit might work its way into each one’s heart and mind as manna for the coming week.
I doubt that anyone would argue that this morning’s scripture passages are neither reminiscent of the birth of the Messiah that we will soon celebrate nor as romantic as a Hallmark card. Much as we’d like it to be different, a good many folks are actually closer to these somber scenarios of the scripture passages than to a magical manger scene. In fact, I think that all the incense that I hear about putting Christ back in Christmas may not be so much about theology as a sort of pathology; a “deviation from propriety” as Merriam Webster says, as an avoidance of the holly jolly of the season. Whether it’s grief, illness, fatigue, pain, a broken heart, or any other burden that weighs the shoulders and souls down, if we looked a little deeper into our own hearts, we would probably readily discover just how far away we may be from that holy baby’s birthday - more than we’d really like to be.
If we were to step back from individual situations, we can get - cerebrally - get that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. But sometimes our humanity gets the better of us, allowing for our attention to be drawn away from the larger picture of life. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are human, after all. But we sometimes forget that the great Good News of the gospel is that 1. God understands our struggles and 2. we are not alone. It’s easy to forget that God has already entered our struggle. It just may not look like anything we may have anticipated.
I wonder if that’s part of the reason God chose John the Baptist as the heralder of Christ. He surely didn’t look like an announcer of the holy and divine Son of God. Didn’t eat stuff that looked like a holy heralder. Probably didn’t smell like the heralder we might conjure up in our minds, either. In fact, he was perhaps a rather goofy choice for the position. And aren’t we all just a little goofy, too? Which is part of the beauty of this whole Advent waiting.
No matter how we look, what we eat, what we wear, God is in the middle of it. No matter if it makes sense, if life confounds, if “comfort” seems like the most irrelevant encouragement, God was, is and always will be in the middle of it, regardless of whether it looks like it or not.
Which is where “faith” comes in. Faith is one of those strange words, because while we may believe and be believing, while we may trust and be trusting, we don’t have a faithing, although we may “practice” our faith.
It is in the practicing and faithing and believing that God is going to take of everything where we can find peace. If God is with us, and we practice trusting that God has a plan - that we may not understand or even appreciate, then we come closer to that peace that is promised us. We can put our situations, our worries, concerns, even our lives into God’s hands, to find the comfort and peace, of which this day promises us. And we get closer to really appreciating the deeper meaning of a baby being born into a world that struggles with unrest and discomfort on so many different levels. And we get closer to not just celebrating the Christ child, but experiencing all that surrounds that child and that Christ.
William H. Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, said, “Jesus preached some stirring sermons and pronounced some beautiful truth. But mostly what he gave us was himself, touching the untouchables, reaching out to the forgotten and dispossessed, sharing a meal with outcasts and sinners. At the end of this story that John the Baptist begins, Jesus will gather with us in an upper room and break bread and share a cup of wine saying, ‘This is my body, my blood, given for you.’ “
Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary posed the idea of sitting down with a class of Kindergarteners and telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but mixing in some bits from the Three Little Pigs or other story. Undoubtedly there would be some scowls and furrowed brows before an insurrection of “That’s not how it goes!”
When it comes to the stable at an inn on a night 2,000 years ago, the prophet Isaiah and the writer of Mark remind us that it’s not just about that night, but about so much more. So it’s good to have this season of waiting, that we can be reminded of the way the story really goes, with all it’s goofiness, contrarinessss, comfort and peace. So shall we pray?
Holy and Eternal God, we thank you that your word endures forever and that your promises are sure and true. We know that you understand how life can take our focus off your big picture and we can get caught in the minutia of things. So help us to remember the story of your son, in all it’s glory and depth and oddities, that in the practice of our faithing we come to embrace all the comfort and peace that you have for us. For these and all your gifts, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent, Communion Sunday
Mark 13:24-37 & 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
“Not What We Were Expecting”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One day, Einstein has to speak at an important science conference. On the way there, he notices that his driver looks a bit like him. Einstein says, "I'm sick of all these conferences. I always say the same things over and over!” The driver agrees: "You're right. As your driver, I attend all of them, and even though I don't know anything about science, I could give the conference in your place.” "That's a great idea!" says Einstein. "Let's switch places then!"
So they switch clothes and as soon as they arrive, the driver dressed as Einstein goes on stage and starts giving the usual speech, while the real Einstein, dressed as the car driver, attends it.
But in the crowd, there is one scientist who wants to impress everyone and thinks of a very difficult question to ask Einstein, hoping he won't be able to respond. So this guy stands up and interrupts the conference by posing his very difficult question. The whole room goes silent, holding their breath, waiting for the response. The driver looks at him, dead in the eye, and says, "Sir, your question is so easy to answer that I'm going to let my driver reply to it for me.”
Happy New Year to one and all! In all the preparations and planning for the rest of this month, it’s sometimes a little jarring to think not only about a new church year, but about this Advent season, which is in reality, a season of waiting. In fact, according to Merriam-Webster, advent means “a coming into being or use.” Naturally, most of us equate this “coming into being” to mean the birth of Christ. But from our scripture passages this morning, we are in a larger season of advent as well.
The thirteenth chapter of Mark is one that I would describe as full of woe. Jesus was leaving the temple, when one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” And Jesus turns to the guy and spews forth a tirade of doom and gloom that would accompany the temple - THE Temple - being destroyed - which it was - and families that would fight against each other - which has happened far too often.
In the 1 Corinthians passage, the apostle Paul had received a letter from the Corinthian church, in which they presented him with a very long laundry list of questions and disputes that were tearing their tiny congregation to shreds. Both of these passages, however, remind us of the Good News of the Gospel, even if it is “Not (exactly) What We Were Expecting”.
Mark 13:24-37 (NIV)
24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
The Day and Hour Unknown
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (NIV)
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thank you, Donna. A man is talking to God. "God, how long is a million years?" God answers, "To me, it's about a minute." "God, how much is a million dollars?" "To me, it's a penny." "God, may I have a penny?" "Wait a minute.”
I had to laugh at Scott Hoezee’s comment about the darkness of the scriptural tone. “Try turning this (passages) into a fireside Christmas story and see if the children’s eyes glisten in wonder! It’s the kind of thing you might expect The Onion or Saturday Night Live to make a parody out of as some holiday Scrooge-type terrifies children with tales of apocalyptic darkness as the sun goes supernova and the moon winks out as a result.”
It was Lucy Lind Hogan of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. who brought just the right thread to this sermon/message tapestry. She said, “It would seem that the church in Corinth had forgotten that Christ would come again, that they were living in the in-between time. They would seem to be so focused on what God had already done in Jesus they were no longer waiting or living in anticipation of “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”
And then Scott Hoezee brought another thread to the loom, “If Jesus is not coming back to make all things new and bring in the kingdom he talked about all through his ministry, then any celebration of his birth really would be on a par with fantasies about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.…If Jesus is not the Lord of lords who can come back at the end of history, then “Silent Night” has all the charm—and all the meaning—of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
If even we in the church confine ourselves to the cozy sentimentality and twinkling lights of the season where the rest of society seems to place its emphasis, then we cannot fully appreciate the reasons why God went to such extreme lengths to bring the Son of God to this world in flesh. If the whole world just generally resembled the little fantasy kingdoms in the mall or on our television screens, then the world would not need saving and God would not have needed to go to such bloody lengths to make salvation a reality.”
So we wait - not only for the celebration of the anniversary of Christ came into the world, but that Christ will come again. Except, who among us likes waiting? Metaphorically, there are days when even waiting for the water to get hot in the microwave for the instant potatoes is too long! And there are days that - at least I - catch myself - probably at a stop light - waiting - even though I had left home with plenty of time - and I catch myself realizing that anxiousness is not going to make the light turn green any faster, so just breathe, ya ding-a-ling!
So perhaps this first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday in which we look for the coming of Christ - down the road, so to speak - is the one that gives us permission to sit, while the stoplight is red, to breathe and re-calibrate our vision and mission - of not just the here and now - but the day and hour of which only God knows. (Which, incidentally, is fascinating that not even Jesus knows when that will be!)
And while we take this moment, this permission to breathe, and we become aware of those breathing around us, that we don’t wait alone; not only do we have this church family that waits with us, but God’s Holy Spirit is also here, permeating not only the cracks and crannies of this building, but the cracks and crannies of our hearts and minds, too.
As we breathe out the things that want to monopolize our attention and breathe in the Holy Spirit, and realize the communion that then happens within this family - including the Holy Spirit - we can celebrate the hope that the second coming of Christ will bring - in the celebration of Christ’s first coming and his resurrection to eternal life, which God has promised us. This is not, perhaps, the Advent gift we were expecting, but it is the one that God holds out for us. So let us open our hearts to not only the gift of hope, but to God’s very self.
Let us pray. Eternal and Intimate God, we thank you for being our God. Thank you for loving each one of us - not as we might expect - but in ways that are greater than we can sometimes imagine. Thank you, too, for your greatest gift, again, not one we might have anticipated, but a child to cozy his way into our hearts like so many babies and children do, in all the unexpected ways that that happens. Draw us into your arms even closer this Advent season, that we not feel alone or cold or even dead, but alive and beloved and enlivened. As we all wait for Christ’s next coming, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.