First Congregational Church
December 30, 2018
First Sunday after Christmas
“The Gift of Celebration”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Last week we began our service with one of the oldest surviving Christmas hymns, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” dating from the 5th century. Surely there must have been songs about Christ’s birth before 413, but they didn’t survive in ways that we recognize today. It would be interesting to find out the lyrics for some of those early Christmas hymns, because “Of the Father’s Love” speaks about Christ’s birth in a more ethereal, grandiose manner, without the details that so many of our modern hymns, carols and songs include.
It is the gospel of Luke that gives us the most detail about Jesus’ birth, and included in the opening chapters are songs by Mary and Zechariah - Jesus’ uncle. Song is the name given to their speeches, although we don’t know for certain if these words were actually sung. Perhaps it is how they were recorded by the writer of Luke that made the words seem like songs.
Regardless, there was the “great company of the heavenly host” that appeared to the shepherds, along with the angel Gabriel who “praised God” with the words “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lu. 2:14)
After the shepherds found the holy family, they returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God,” which if the previous “explanations” of wording is taken as true, then there could surely have been some singing from the shepherds.
And none of that information is really worth two beans, except that it reminds us that we human beings have been singing for a long time, and hopefully, we will continue to do so in our eternal lives - at least for those who like to sing.
This morning is the convergence of two realities: the fifth Sunday of the month, that the Worship Committee has declared to be hymn/song Sunday, and the Sunday after Christmas, which gives us room to sing the beloveds one more time before tucking them away until next year.
May the hymns each be a message - to you, about you, for you - with phrases that pop out to lighten burdens, lift hearts and set our minds for the coming year.
Our opening hymn was birthed in England, published first in Scribner’s Monthly magazine, about the time our church was built. Apparently, magazines were a popular means of getting music “out there.” It was the great composer, Gustav Holst, who gave us the tune and harmony that we common folks use these days. He gave the tune the name “Cranham" after the city by the same name in Gloucestershire, England. Whether there was actual snow at Christ’s birth or not, let us stand and sing the backdrop to the rest of our worship service.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” S 76, (do 4 verses)
I’m not sure how these things ever happen, well, we know that God has a certain corner on this market, but it is always interesting to see how things pan out. The next three hymns represent the international aspect of our worship, reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
“O Holy Night,” or, “Cantique de Noel,” reminds us that noel means Christmas in French. In fact, a Christmas carol is sometimes called a noel in some places in the world. Then there is the word “carol,” which could either be a French word or Latin word, carula, meaning a circular dance. I believe the man’s name to be Andrew Carter, who made the distinction between Christmas hymns and carols to be about meter: carols are more often in 3/4 time while hymns are generally in four. More about the dance element later.
“O Holy Night” #285, vs. 1 & 3
“Silent Night” comes from Germany. Some time after the text of “Silent Night” being written, Joseph Mohr took his poem to Franz Gruber, asking him to compose a melody with guitar accompaniment. Some stories say that the organ at the church, on a particular Christmas Eve, decided to give out, so the hymn was created to save the day for the choir and Gruber as guitarist.
The other story focuses on a truce that occurred in 1914, supposedly from a decree by Pope Benedict, between British and French soldiers during World War I. The epilogue to this part of the hymn story tell us of the power of its message, that at some strips along the 500 mile trench, friendly soccer games broke out. Whatever stories are true or not quite so true, it is still one of the best loved Christmas hymns/carols/songs.
“Silent Night” #253, vs. 1 & 4
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is from Poland. If we were singing it in Polish, it would likely start on the down beat. Since we are singing it in English, it starts with an upbeat. In Poland, Christmas caroling takes place between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, while carrying a star on a pole and a Nativity scene. Not sure if the Nativity scene is in costume or also carried on a pole, but apparently it’s pretty festive. Because of it’s stately 3/4 time signature, some have called this tune the first polonaise or mazurka, the form that Frederick Chopin made famous.
It’s possible that the tune of this song may date back to the 13th century, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was translated into English by Edith Reed. Whatever it’s origins, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” fits just right into this little trio of night songs/carols/hymns.
"Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” #279
You may remain seated for the “Morning Message.” This last grouping of songs/hymns/carols is the American set. While a lot of the singing we do at this time of year is in large thanks to England, I was surprised at the number of American tunes that we maybe don’t think of in terms of what was going on in the life of our country.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was written during the Industrial Revolution, on the cusp of the Civil War, and during the California Gold Rush. Even though we are not singing verse 3 today, it had never occurred to me that those "beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow” were people that perhaps carried real, heavy, crushing loads of rock or coal or even munitions.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” #251
In my humble opinion, no better song for those who struggle for this time of year than "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow didn’t just pen the words, he “got them.”
Two years before he wrote the poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire, which caused permanent scar damage to his own face. Then in 1863, during the
American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles, joined the Union cause as a soldier - without his father's blessing. Then his son was severely wounded and it was feared that he might become paralyzed. He eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished. Despite the valleys of his life, including the fear of being sent to an asylum for his grief, Longfellow’s faith found respite by listening - to the bells that rang of a peace that would pass all understanding.
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” #267 (5 verses) 1864 Longfellow
During my scrounging and digging for this service, my greatest surprise came in a little video of a question and answer session with a gentleman named Jeremy Summerly of the Royal Academy of Music in England. He was speaking about the history of carols - including other seasonal ones, like Easter and Epiphany carols, explaining that they were mostly developed from circle dances. Ring dances were pretty much what they sound like: a group of people dancing in a circle, with a leader in the middle. The leader would sing a verse and the circle would sing back the refrain. Ironically, the only two songs for today that would fit such a description would be our next, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and our last, “Joy to the World.”
Mr. Summerly made a distinction that I’d not heard before, that “Go Tell It On the Mountain” is an example of a burden. I don’t know why that is its name, but a burden is a song that begins with the refrain and ends with the refrain, with verses in the middle of the musical sandwich. One of the other hymns that might fit the form of a burden would be “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” We start with the refrain and end with it. “Go Tell It” is also an extrapolated call and response song from the days of tending cotton and tobacco and all the other crops that required long and backbreaking work - the call being the verse and the response being the refrain.
I didn’t find any evidence of it, but I wonder if the lyrics of “Go Tell It” were, in part, a message about escaping slavery, the shepherds being the ones who were to escape, the light being the North Star, and the angels being those who encouraged the shepherds on their journey, i.e., the abolitionists. Because so many spirituals carry this double meaning, I’m guessing that it’s a possibility.
“Go Tell It On the Mountain” #258 (3 verses) Spiritual 1865
Interestingly enough, “The Birthday of a King” is another hymn from the Civil War era. It’s not necessarily a hymn best suited for congregational singing, but then, neither is “O Holy Night.” And yet the publishers of our hymnal included them.
The man who wrote “The Birthday of a King” was William H. Neidlinger, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, which is close to Queens, which is where Bill Hirschfeld was born. Neidlinger lived for a time in Chicago, and so did Bill. Neidlinger was a singing teacher and Bill played the trumpet, so this is not just an arbitrary song!
“The Birthday of a King” #284 (2 verses) William Neidlinger 1890
“One Small Child” is such a great song, reminding us of the breadth of love in which God sent us the Christ child. But it is a really hard one to follow, and I’ve yet to see a version that is truly congregational friendly. That being said, our version is possible, if you know that the bulletin is no mistake.
We will sing the beginning of the song, and almost at the end of the third line, we will go back to sing the second verse at the top of the page. When we get to almost the end of the third line again, we will go down to the second verse at the bottom of the page and sing through the top of the second page. Then we go back to the top of the first page to end at the end of the third line, and Bob’s your uncle. It wasn’t mandatory that this song be included today, but it was fitting to include a living American composer, as long as we have one.
“One Small Child” #280 (4 verses) David Meece bn. 1952
“Joy to the World” is perhaps one of the most iconic of Christmas songs/hymns/carols. But it carries an extra layer for us because it was written by Isaac Watts, the great Congregational hymn writer and father of English hymnody. He was properly an English Congregationalist, but we take our fame when we can get it.
It’s pretty cool that Watts wrote this song with a nod to Handel’s Messiah. I haven’t found it, but perhaps there is an irony that Mr. Watts didn’t write this song to be sung only at Christmas. He thought it would be sung during all different times of the year.
And then there’s the part where it is based more on a psalm than a gospel, and it speaks more to Christ’s second coming than his first. It was Mr. Lowell Mason who brought the text and tune together in the way we know it. The result is almost like the punch line of a joke: a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States!
May the messages of the music today stay with us in the coming week, for contemplation, prayer, and devotion, making our hearts a place of peace for the spreading in Christ’s name. Amen.
“Joy to the World!” #270 (4 verses) 1719 Watts
First Congregational Church
December 24, 2018
“Clearing the Frost from the Glass”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It is said that what is old becomes new. Vintage becomes popular, despite it’s real meaning of “old.” Retro and Victorian are words that give new luster to dusty fashion. But there are some things that will never go out of fashion, babies and hope and love and anticipation.
I hadn’t really given the book series by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen much thought in the last several years, the series most commonly known as Chicken Soup for the Soul. There are all sorts of Chicken Soup’s for the Soul out there: for dog and cat lovers, those who are grieving or in recovery, baseball lovers and kids, mothers, fathers, teachers, nurses and even CSS recipe books. This evening, we all get to taste the one called The Joy of Christmas.
Donna Van Cleve Schlief wrote the story, My Crazy Dad. “I thought my dad had lost his mind. Night after night he asked me to look at the angel on top of our Christmas tree. She wore a little gold net skirt and she was pretty, but we had bought her a long time ago. She was old news.
Isn’t she pretty, Donna? Sure, daddy, it’s the same angel we’ve had for years. I was an 18-year-old college freshman and I knew my dad was ancient, being in his mid-40s. He was definitely losing it. There were still two weeks until Christmas, and he was pointing out the angel to me almost every day.
The Sunday before Christmas I found my dad sitting on the couch looking up at the angel again. He smiled at me and pointed toward the angel again. What in the world was going on with this man?
Finally, it was Christmas morning. Dad was still talking about our beautiful Christmas Angel. We opened our gifts and then daddy brought out the camera and a chair. “Donna, come over and stand on this chair", he said, “I want to take your picture next to the angel.” Now I knew he was out of his mind.
Go ahead, Donna, my mother whispered. Did I have to worry about her state of mind, to? I stood on the chair and turned toward the cheap little angel made in China – obeying my aging parents. And then I saw them – diamond stud earrings inserted into the Angels skirt. My dad had wanted me to find them early because he was so excited. I felt like such a brat to have doubted him.
The story ends 13 years later; one of the earrings missing and a little sadness, as the Chicken Soup stories tend. But it was a perfect story as the preamble to this worship service, because I believe God tries to get our attention to focus on the great gift of this night’s celebration: of anticipation and realization, of hope and faith, of a baby and a savior, shiny little lights of love all wrapped up in love.
It’s not exactly the same gift for each person here, but it is definitely one chosen just for you. You haven’t done anything to deserve this gift, and there is nothing you can ever do that will take this gift from you. It is given freely, and the only string attached is that you believe it, even just a tiny smidgeon, because even the smallest amount of faith can grow into a mountain of understanding of God’s love for you.
So go ahead, crawl up into God’s lap, and let the story of God’s love for you wrap you up in all the beauty and grace and joy of this night.
First Congregational Church
December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Advent
“The Power of a True Story”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I say a story is worth a thousand pictures. Our brains naturally formulate pictures as we hear them read. So much of what we celebrate at this time of year is the direct result of the story of Jesus’ birth - all the prophecies and accounts and reactions of so many individuals. Perhaps more than any other time in the liturgical calendar, this Fourth Sunday in Advent, right on the doorstep of Christmas, is best suited for true stories. Geno Sloan is responsible for the first story today, Michael Schlagle penned the second, and God Almighty continues to write the ending of the third.
My husband Sherman and I lived in central Mexico for several years while his construction company worked on a project for General Motors. We enjoyed our stay there and spent our free time exploring the country’s historic sites and places where the locals vacationed instead of Americanized resorts and beaches. We were especially fond of the mountainous city of Guanajuato, with its colorful and unique adobe homes built on steep hillsides. Eventually, we purchased a large painting of that beautiful city to display in our living room after retirement. Following years of travel and adventure, we moved back to our home, a small town on the North Dakota prairie.
Fifteen years later, my husband died of a massive heart attack. Several months after that, I put an ad in our local paper offering to give away our six foot Christmas tree, complete with lights. Since my husband was gone, the Christmas spirit was not the same for me. I didn’t want to decorate the large one that we had enjoyed as a couple for so many years, and I purchased a very small tree instead.
One Sunday the phone rang and a woman with a very pronounced Latino accent asked about the tree. She and her husband worked for a rancher almost 60 miles away, but decided they would drive to town for the tree. I agreed to save it for them, and they arrived an hour and 1/2 later. They walked in the front door and immediately zeroed in on the very large painting above my coach.
“Is that Guanajuato?” the man asked excitedly. “That is our home!” He explained that when they were not working for the rancher in the US, they lived very close to that city in Mexico. I told him we had lived in Mexico for a couple of years and explained about the project. He was very familiar with it.
“Oh, I know the factory. It is very large and covers the valley below Guanajuato.” They were so pleased to talk about the area, and I told them all about the construction projects we had done throughout the years, and how much we had enjoyed living in Mexico.
The couple had small children, and this was the first time they would not be in Mexico for Christmas. He said they had looked in the local store, but the large trees were all too expensive. I was so happy to give them our tree, and I added some extra strings of lights and a large bag of ornaments. As they left, I said, “Feliz Navidad.”
The spirit of Christmas was back in my heart. My husband would’ve been so pleased that the tree would now shine for this family. I like to think that he nudged me toward placing the ad for the tree. Why else would a couple, so far from their country, find such a coincidental meeting on the prairies of North Dakota? Geno Sloan Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Wonder of Christmas
On Christmas Eve, when most people set aside a plate of cookies for Santa Claus, we have a different tradition. We make him a nice bologna and cheese sandwich. For our boys, it means they get to leave something special for old St. Nick. For my wife and me, it is a tradition that dates back to our first Christmas together and reminds us that the true spirit of the holidays is found in the simplest of miracles.
It all started on Christmas Eve 1982. Sharon and I had recently moved to Colorado and we were spending our first holiday away from family and friends. We were living in an old motel outside of Denver.
Snow started falling lightly on Christmas Eve morning. The prospect of a white Christmas brightened our spirits. We went to the Cinderella City mall for some last-minute shopping. When we emerged with our packages, we were greeted by a raging blizzard. Luckily, we were able to catch the final bus home. It was snowing so furiously that the driver had to stop every block to clear off the windshield. Darkness had fallen by the time we reached our motel.
Once inside, we realized that we had forgotten to get food for our Christmas dinner. Once again, we bundled up and ventured into the stormy night, hoping to find a store not closed for the holiday or by the snowstorm.
Outside, the night was an incredible flurry of snowflakes and howling wind, obliterating all but the faint glow of street lamps and Christmas decorations. The roads were deserted except for the cars buried in the mounting snowdrifts. Chilled to the bone by the bitter wind, we had all but given up hope when we rounded a corner to see a deli shop owner turning off his lights and closing up the store. When we drew closer, we realized he was dressed in a Santa suit, beard and all! As we approached, he called out “Merry Christmas!” and explained he was off to surprised his grandkids.
We explained our plight, but he shook his head and told us that the storm had completely emptied the shelves. Then he thought for a moment, invited us inside, and led us to a back room where he had a small fridge. Inside were two big hunks of bologna and cheese which he placed in a sack, along with a loaf of bread, a bag of pistachio nuts, and a bottle of ginger ale. We laughed when he quipped, “Santa’s favorite snack,” and patted his belly.
He accepted only our heartfelt thanks and gave us each a warm hug. Once outside, he reached into his pocket, handing us each a candy cane. With a hearty laugh, he wished us Merry Christmas once again and disappeared into the night.
That night, as we feasted on bologna, cheese and pistachio nuts, we marveled at the Christmas gift the kind store owner had bestowed upon us, for when we walked back into the night and he had faded into the storm, we realized we had never gotten his name. It was when we turned around to see the name of the deli that we realized we had experienced a touch of Christmas magic. The name of the deli was Nick’s Place. To this day, our family shares the story around the Christmas tree to remind each other that it is indeed the wonder-filled moments that bring treasured meaning to the miracle that is Christmas. Michael J. Schlagle, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Wonder of Christmas
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. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Thank you, Dale and Donna. With some 31.5 hours before we once again celebrate the Annual Candlelight Christmas Eve Worship service, one may not think there would be much room for a miracle of any sort, much less one that could find its way into a Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas edition book. But there are miracles all around us, just waiting for us to “see” them. Even if it is nothing more than the gathered body of individuals - here and tomorrow evening - that will never be gathered with exactly the same personnel again, there are miracles that surround us, enfold us and beg for our attention as signs of God’s love.
As each of us prepares for the birth of the One expected from so long ago, may each of us be extra aware, more open to, and extraordinarily desirous of the miraculous ways that God catches our attention and draws us into the embrace of God’s love, that will take place in the coming hours and even into the rest of the week. Toward that end, let us pray.
God of every potential and promise and possibility, we thank you for all the gifts and miracles you have bestowed on us. Help each of us to take off any Negative Nancy or Nathan glasses and don the expectant attitude of the angels and shepherds and kings and even Joseph and Mary. May we not become so entangled in despair or sorrow or depression that it inhibits our ability to see you and the gift of love that you sent as a representation of your love for us - that love that never changes regardless of our earthly and human circumstances. For all the blessings, gifts, love and miracles that you constantly offer us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 9, 2018
Second Sunday in Advent
“Yen for the Least Likely”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One day, back in the wild West, a stranger stood at a saloon bar. Suddenly a cowboy ran in screaming, “Hey, everybody, Big Bad John is coming to town.” Several others exclaimed: “Big Bad John is the meanest, toughest, biggest outlaw in the West. Let’s run for it.”
Everyone headed for the door except the stranger and the bartender. The bartender said, “Are you deaf, mister? Big Bad John is coming!” The stranger replied, “I don’t know who he is, but he can’t be all that big and bad. I’m not afraid.” So the stranger and the bartender waited. Soon the saloon doors flew off their hinges, and a mountain of a man stomped through the door. Covered with scars and sporting a scowl, he demanded a drink.
The bartender meekly complied. The stranger nervously thought to himself, “Now I wish I had run away; this guy is the biggest, meanest-looking outlaw I’ve ever seen.” The outlaw downed the drink in one gulp, slammed it down on the bar, then turned and looked the stranger coldly in the eye to announce, “I don’t know about you, stranger, but I’m gettin’ outta here. I don’t wanna be here when Big Bad John comes in!”
Anticipation and surprise: two of the best tools in communication - at least in my humble opinion. The gospel of Luke begins with the prophecy of John the Baptist’s birth from a woman thought to be barren - and surprise! - he was born.
Luke tells us that John grew and became strong in spirit; living in the wilderness, while cousin Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. Jesus took on the carpenter trade while John transitioned to a preacher in the wilderness. It is in the gospel of Matthew that we get the wonderful vision of the “calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John who got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and was arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway”, as Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Yale Divinity School described him.
Last week we explored the surprise lectionary passage set against the backdrop of the kingdom of God at the end of Luke. Today we get a passage nearer the beginning of Luke, against a backdrop of roads and wilderness.
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
Thank you, Robin. Back in 1992, before recycling was as big a deal as it is now, a New York City businessman decided to avoid a $20 service charge by replacing a fluorescent light himself. After he had smuggled a new light into his office and put it in place, he decided to get rid of the old tube by throwing it in the trash can near his subway stop.
That night he got on the subway holding the seven-foot light vertically, with one end resting on the floor of the car. As the train became more crowded other passengers took hold of the tube, assuming it was a stanchion. By the time the man reached his stop, he simply removed his hand and exited the car, leaving the other passengers gripping the fluorescent tube! Not that I would promote such an action, it is another fine example of anticipation and surprise.
The writing of this message was interesting because I found myself mentally substituting a word I have heard a million times - give or take a few thousand. The words in question are wilderness and desert. Some Bible versions use desert for wilderness, and it’s probably not such a big deal, but there is a subtle distinction between them. A desert usually implies a dryness and perhaps sandy location: the Sahara or Death Valley coming to mind. A wilderness can be a desert, but it can also be the farthest reaches of Alaska, Tibet, or even a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town. People can learn to live in both deserts and wildernesses, but I’m guessing it might be easier living in a wilderness, perhaps because of the probable or near presence of water. But that’s just a guess.
Long before John the Baptist, the wilderness was a place - counter-intuitively, perhaps - of safety and divine provision. Young David ran to the desert to escape Saul’s wrath, and the prophet Elijah fled from persecution into the wilderness. Moses led the people of Israel through their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness - and they were provided food. Jesus, himself, was known to take wilderness respite, most notably his 40 day wilderness retreat where he was faced with temptations of all sorts.
Gary Hilfiger of All Saints Lutheran Church in Richmond, Texas pointed out that in Jerusalem, when the word of God was drowned out, you go to the wilderness (not necessarily desert) to hear it. That insight makes a lot of sense, especially in light of all the government officials listed in the beginning of this morning’s scripture passage. All those religious politicians like Pontius Pilot, Herod, Phillip and Lysanias - all the noise of their religious-political commercials filling the squares and temple steps - makes sense that John would be in the wilderness, listening to what God had to say.
As a friend of mine once said, when coming out of the bush of Canada, you may not find out who you are, but you will definitely find out who you aren’t. The bush of Canada and the wilderness of the Middle East are not that far apart. John the Baptist may not have fully appreciated who he was, but he surely understood who he wasn’t.
It was a Robert Mitschke who made an observation that did a fair bit of steering in this message. He said, “The wilderness suggests to me a sense of emptiness. Perhaps the lesson is including the idea of emptying ourselves so as to be filled - drop your preconceptions; God is so much more than we can ever imagine; drop self and self-righteousness. I keep coming back to Paul listing all the things he is (a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, a pharisee) and how they kept him from knowing Christ.” Mr. Mitschke also suggested that “Perhaps we might think of Sunday morning worship as the wilderness, a time to shut off the noise of the world and listen to the word of God.” The question is, how do we do that - in actuality?
It was Scott Hoezee of Calvine Theological Seminary who brought out the subject of Roman roads in our scripture passage. I don’t know about anyone else, but I generally don’t think much about the roads back then, or hi-ways, except that maybe they were dusty two tracks, for the most part.
Mr. Hoezee noted that Rome built its roads and highways and bridges so that at the time, one could get around the ancient world better than at any point in recorded human history. Apparently, they were spectacular, especially after Caesar’s wife started an “Highway Beautification” initiative. The roads were grand, the travel was easy, the trade routes were prosperous. This description is especially pertinent as much of the area in and around Jerusalem and Jericho was desert and rocky; a difficult, stony, and very rough area.
John the Baptist versus Tiberius Caesar, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. Talk about an underdog as opposed to the top dogs. The slick versus the rough-edged. The least likely in that bunch was the one who brought the most valued message of less is more, less is more, less is more in contrast to the one with the most wins. From Luke’s passage, we can glean the habit to look to the unlikely places and the unlikely people to find hope. Perhaps we might just sit with that thought for a moment - in this wilderness of holiness - that the unlikely places and people are the most likely spaces and ambassadors for hope. (pause)
It is so human to look for hope in the wrong places: Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, amazing preachers. Even in this holy season of Advent, it is easy to be distracted by the manger scene that has been imbued with so much glitter that in truth we forget sometimes that Jesus’ birth also took place out in the middle of nowhere at a time when everyone else in the Empire was paying far more attention to the movers and shakers elsewhere than to anything happening out in a cave or poor house somewhere. Luke reminds us to refocus and to tap into what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe.”
It’s easy, in our weariness, the callousness that at times appear to be forced on us, to be lack-luster in our anticipation of the coming Christ. But it is worth the effort to reclaim the anticipation and surprise - the excitement and wonder of a Child’s Christmas, because those are some of the very places we find hope.
Admittedly, we know what is coming. So often, we feel no anticipation about the coming of Christ; Christmas for some people is just another holiday, that same old time of year where we fight our way through stores, unpack our ornaments, and eat too much.
So we must work at it if we wish to reclaim the excitement of Advent. Paradoxically, one must prepare to be surprised. Pause for a moment and consider the hope, anticipation, and surprise of that first Christmas.
A big gift is indeed on its way to you–the biggest and best in all human history. The gift of Christ at Christmas has come, and will come again. So go ahead, take a pause, and check your thinking about the coming weeks. Anticipate the gift. Prepare for it. Don’t let it get buried underneath the packages and tree trimmings. Don’t walk past the eternal, oblivious in your worries of the temporal. Open your eyes. Watch for the signs. Bare and prepare your heart as we pray.
God of Wonder and Delight, thank you for sending the ultimate gift of hope - that of your son. Enable us to sort through the clutter of our lives, shoveling out the distractions with prayer. Help us to clear the way, making way for us to listen and practice the anticipation and joys of celebrating your son’s entrance into this world. Help us to wait for the Coming One, who speaks a comforting silence and blesses the emptiness with hope. In such a space, may we develop a yen for the least likely, that will ultimately become passion for the greatest and most certain: you. All your people pray in your holy name, Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 2, 2018
First Sunday in Advent, Communion Sunday
“The Promise of Paradox”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One of the illustrations I read this week commented on a photo from Life magazine, back when John Kennedy was president. It was a picture of his children, John Jr. and Caroline, playing with their toys on the floor of the Oval Office. Apparently the photo captured the hearts of Americans because for the first time, the people were most vividly reminded of the multiple natures of Kennedy: as president and as father, and by extension, husband.
He held ultimate political power in the Free World, but playing at his feet were two little kids who called him Daddy. I’m pretty sure I’d have had barbarian Viking sorts of children, so mine wouldn’t have been allowed to play there. But his kids were because he was their father.
The season of Advent presents us with paradoxes of all sorts. We prepare for the birth of a baby that has already been born 2,000 years ago. We often start Advent with the passage about John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin preaching from the book of Isaiah about preparing a way in the desert, rather than with Jesus’ actual birth. Looking out into the Advent and Christmas season and we come to the crazy idea of a baby threatening a king to the point that it caused the king to order the deaths of children that might live into that potential. And then we have this morning’s gospel passage.
About a month ago, the lectionary covered Mark’s version of a poor woman making a meager offering in the temple. Luke 21 begins with his shorter version of that account, and then he launches into 32 verses of what would make for a sci fi movie, our passage being part of those 32.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Thank you, Chris. Gosh. Don’t you all just love a warm and fuzzy advent scripture? Another passage could have been chosen for this morning, but sometimes the easy way isn’t the good way. So here we are, and there is almost always something good to be found, if we look for it.
Take away the first sentence of the passage, and one might be apt to think that Luke was writing about today or yesterday or tomorrow: nations in anguish (Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Brazil, Afghanistan, North Korea, the United States); perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea (Hurricanes Florence and Michael, Irma and Maria, the Alaskan earthquake two days ago). There have been natural disasters as long as there has been nature, and probably always will be. The earliest disciples were constantly thinking that Jesus would return any minute, but here we are.
In the middle of this passage, there is that little parable about the fig tree. Maybe when you stand back from it, you get the picture of the circle of life: new birth, full bloom, preparation for sleep and the circle goes on and on in our earthly world. Perhaps it is a reference to the circle of life as it relates to the whole of life on planet earth. There was creation, life and then one day, all will be as it was long before God created anything. And while that may be a small, esoteric thought to people who like thinking such thoughts, it doesn’t do much for us in our day to day lives.
But Jesus also suggested that we ‘be careful, or our hearts will be weighed down’ with all sorts of anxieties of life. So we should be on the watch, praying that we might be able to escape all that is to happen.
I don’t know that we can escape all that is to happen - or that we should necessarily even want to. In the sentence before, Jesus had just said that it - it being the weighing down of hearts - will come on all who live on the face of the earth. Those two thoughts don’t really make much sense - in the same paragraph - unless you think about them in terms of the intent of our hearts.
There is an account of a session from the Connecticut House of Representatives two hundred years ago. The house was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. It was said that he was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with logic and faith. “We are all upset by the darkness," he said, “and some of us are afraid. But, the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. “I therefore ask that candles be brought.” And apparently, they went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
As we sit in the midst of this first Sunday in Advent, here in this particular church family, we celebrate our Lord’s Supper today. There’s another paradox - lifting up Christ’s death and resurrection on the day we begin a new church year.
But it’s also the very reason that we are together as a church family - in our belief of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension back to God - in what ever way that might look. We could decide to be an art family, and center our gathering around great works of art. Or we could determine to be a charity family, and focus funds on helping others. But we’ve come together around this oddly hopeful, if somewhat gruesome, life of a man that came to us as a gift and blessing of God’s love.
Christ didn’t come to cause everything make sense, and he didn’t come to make life peachy keen. He came that we might have life - more abundantly - now and in the life to come. So we can sit in the paradox of understanding and seeing only a reflection as in a mirror. We can prepare our hearts for a birth as we celebrate death and resurrection and ascension. So let do just that.
Gracious God, we thank you for all the blessings and life you have bestowed on us, even if we don’t always completely understand your will and ways. Help us to appreciate the both/ands of life, not getting caught up in the either/ors. We may not think of paradoxes as blessings, but we thank you for the fullness that they can bring. Thank you, too, for the vision you have for us as your people, and the call that you extend to us to be your ambassadors of love. For you and all your blessings and love, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.