Tag Archives: Christmas

Jesus’ Ministry Begun (Second Sunday of Christmas) – January 3, 2016 (NL Week 17)

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

The calendar has turned from 2015 to 2016, and with the beginning of this year comes the beginning, in earnest, of our nation’s quadrennial presidential campaign season. Given our proximity to the Hawkeye State, I’m sure that you know that we are now less than one month away from the “first-in-the-nation” Iowa Caucuses. If you didn’t just have that date already in your mind, then perhaps you’ve had the sneaking suspicion that they are coming up soon because of the proliferation of TV ads that has accelerated over the past month or so. More and more frequently, the airwaves are filling up with advertisements from candidates and PACs and “Super PACs”, all of them touting the achievements of this or that presidential hopeful, making the case for why so-and-so is the right man or woman to lead the country for the next four years. I was struck this week by the contrast between that phenomenon – the jousting match for the spotlight – and Jesus’ attitudes about public recognition. The difference, as they say, is night and day.

It’s sort of curious, right? I mean, we’ve already heard the incredible message that Jesus has come to proclaim. Earlier in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, we read the encapsulation of Jesus’ proclamation: “The time has been fulfilled, and the reign of God has drawn near. Turn your lives around, and trust in the good news!” That message, when it is accompanied by the command to follow, has thus far been irresistible: Peter, Andrew, James, and John all left behind their families and their livelihoods to become disciples of Jesus. Even more, this week’s reading presents the proof of that message in real, flesh-and-blood terms. As chapter one continues, God’s reign is breaking out in Capernaum, as unclean spirits are driven out of tormented people, those who have been afflicted by disease and illness are restored to wholeness, and the powerful preaching of Jesus causes the whole town to marvel at the evident authority of this new arrival. By their own admission, they have never seen anything (or anyone) like Jesus before. If any of this year’s presidential candidates had the kind of chops that Jesus displays throughout this reading, you can bet that they would be shouting about them from the rooftops. So why is Jesus so intent on making sure that his identity, his work, and his power are concealed from the masses? What possible reason could there be for keeping the good news of healing and restoration and liberation and salvation from being broadcast far and wide?

There have been a lot of guesses about this over the centuries, and most of them don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Some commentators have claimed that Jesus was trying to keep Jewish people from comprehending his mission and message so that it would be shared with the Gentiles; the fact that all of Jesus’ earliest disciples were Jewish, and that he appears to explicitly limit his work to Jewish towns and villages is a pretty big strike against that theory. Some – including myself – have claimed that there was an overwhelming consensus among first-century Jews that the Messiah would be a military figure, and that Jesus was afraid that his power would lead people to enlist themselves in some divinely established army who would march against the Roman occupiers and destroy them; the reality on the ground is far more complicated than that, and many (perhaps most) of those people who longed for a Messiah had no expectation that such a figure would be a military leader. What makes the most sense, then, is a much less specific and yet much more profound answer, and that is this: that Jesus didn’t want people thinking that they understood his mission before it was complete.

The so-called “Messianic secret” was born out of both humility and compassion. Jesus’ complicated and mysterious mission was incomprehensible without its final act. Those who witnessed the miraculous healings and spectacular exorcisms and prophetic teaching thought they had the measure of the man, but they still had no idea what his life would ultimately look like, or what significance it would have for them or for our world. We, of course, have the benefit of living on this side of the resurrection. We know that the child who was born at Christmas would not only work miracles, but transformation in the hearts of those who encountered him. We know that the near-universal acclaim with which he was met in the beginning would soon fade, eventually giving way to opposition and scheming and arrest and betrayal and death. We know that this Christ the King, whom shepherds guarded and angels sang, would soon be pierced by nail and spear, bearing the cross for me and you. We know that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in all their fullness must be held in tension, lest we forget something important about what he came to be and do for us and for creation.

Brothers and sisters, today’s reading reveals something about Jesus, but it also reveals something about us as human beings. Where we seek to tout our successes and increase our standing in the eyes of others, Jesus seeks to limit his exposure for the sake of the truth and out of care for others. Which of these alternatives will we choose? Will we be focused on reaping the rewards of our good works so that we will be well-regarded by our peers, or will we bring the gospel in word and deed for the benefit of others? Will we put forth only what is good and honorable and desirable about ourselves for the sake of our reputations, or will we present ourselves in all our messiness so that others will know who is working within and through us to bring healing and hope to our world? Are we insistent on making sure that what we say and do reveals something about us, or are we willing to join Jesus in his “secretive” mission of mercy that points beyond ourselves to God’s power and presence in our lives? As this Christmas season draws to a close, let us pray that might we have the courage to heed the call of Jesus to proclaim the good news of God so that God will be praised, and so that the world might know of God’s healing, saving, and restoring love and grace. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Beginning of Good News (First Sunday of Christmas) – December 27, 2015 (NL Week 16)

Sunday’s Reading:
Mark 1:1-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

“Providence granted us a Savior who has made war to cease … with the result that the birth of our god signaled the beginning of Good News for the world.”

On Thursday evening, the church gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We heard the song of the angels, recounted the wonder of the shepherds, sat with Mary as she pondered everything that had happened. In our exuberance, a statement like the one above wouldn’t have felt out of place. You might be surprised to know, however, that this statement wasn’t about Jesus. In fact, it was inscribed by someone who would likely never have heard of Jesus at all. The “good news” this writer proclaimed was about the birth of the Emperor Augustus, who was himself called Savior, Son of God, and Lord.

When we read the opening line of Mark’s Gospel and his conviction that the book that follows is itself the beginning of “good news”, we are reading a statement that would have astounded those who were reading it for the first time. They would have known the claims made about the Roman emperor. They would have been familiar with the idea that “good news” wasn’t necessarily good for them. What was it about this Jesus that made the story of his life important enough to be called “good news” among people who would have been skeptical of that phrase?

It doesn’t take Mark long to start explaining what the good news looks like. Where the Gospel of Luke takes two full chapters describing the birth and childhood of Jesus, Mark abruptly introduces an adult Jesus who immediately gets to work. From the time of his appearance on the scene to the end of this morning’s reading, Jesus is on the move, with signs of what makes him unique featured prominently. John, the strange messenger foretold in Holy Scripture, tells the people of a “more powerful” person who will come after him and bear the Holy Spirit to others. At his first appearance, Jesus – that more powerful person – is addressed by a heavenly voice who confirms his identity as a divine Son and affirms the favor that he enjoys. The Holy Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness to prepare him for his mission and ministry by putting him into direct confrontation with Satan, the embodiment of opposition to God. As quickly as John shows up, he is removed from the scene, and Jesus takes center stage for the remainder of the work, bringing his own message of repentance. Then, in short order, Jesus’ presence and the force of his will compels four men to abandon their families and vocations to become his disciples.

It’s a stunning opening that, frankly, ambushes us with the kind of rhetoric and imagery that makes Jesus impossible to ignore. At his baptism, the heavens themselves are torn apart! A voice from heaven calls him a beloved Son! Jesus himself announces the inauguration of God’s reign on earth! A simple command changes the lives of four men forever! Twenty verses in, we know that Jesus means business, and that the story that will continue to unfold over the next fifteen chapters will be unlike any other story that has ever been told.

So what are we to make of this opening? What is the good news for us as we continue through this Christmas season and into a new year? I’d like to suggest a few ways that the beginning of this story continues to be a word of good news for our lives.

The first is that the announcement of Jesus to those first-century people is still as true now as it was then: “The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near!” We live in the hope and expectation that the reign of God which broke out when Jesus entered the scene is still present in our midst, that we are still able to catch glimpses of that kingdom breaking out around us in various ways. We’ll learn more in the weeks and months to come what that kingdom looks like, but it is enough for today to know that God’s reign is not in some other place or time, but right here and right now.

The second is that the Holy Spirit that descended into Jesus at his baptism was also given to us in our baptism. Put another way, the same Spirit that made Jesus capable of the amazing deeds that will be recounted throughout Mark’s Gospel also dwells within us, strengthening us to be disciples of Jesus and granting us the grace to live in obedience to his teaching.

The last thing to take away from this morning’s reading is that it represents just the beginning of this good news! The gospel of Jesus continues to unfold in our own day through Christ’s presence in the church, meaning that we who bear the name of Christ are given the joy and responsibility of bearing the good news that began with Jesus’ appearance on the banks of the Jordan as we go from this place into our own lives. In word and deed, we have the opportunity to share what God has done in Jesus with those we encounter each day, helping them to see how God’s reign is breaking out in their lives as well.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the midst of a time of reflection on beginnings. As we continue through the season of Christmas and prepare to ring in the New Year later this week, may we be inspired to consider the good news that is a gift to us and to our whole world. May we wonder anew at who Jesus is and what he has accomplished for us and for creation. May we ready ourselves to look at the story of his life with fresh eyes and an openness to knowing him more deeply. Finally, may we strive to learn what it means to be a faithful follower of God’s Son today and in the days to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Birth of Jesus (Nativity of Our Lord) – December 24, 2015

Thursday’s Reading:
Luke 2:1-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Earlier this week, as I was preparing for tonight’s sermon – and by preparing I mean, of course, procrastinating, because like all of you I had ten thousand other things to do and I wasn’t yet ready to handle the big thing at the top of my list – a video came across my Facebook feed that stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It was a presentation of a Christmas pageant that purported to be a realistic account of the nativity of our Lord, and it started out the way that many other Christmas pageants do. Mary and Joseph enter the stage and ask an innkeeper if there is any place that they can stay the night, because they expect the baby to be born at any moment. The innkeeper, of course, tells them that there is no room, and at that very moment the scene is rent by cries of pain from the young girl playing Mary. She is ready to deliver the baby, and the rest of the characters jump into action, spouting medical jargon that would be very familiar to anyone who has been in a birthing suite during childbirth. Concerns about hygiene and warmth and all manner of other things crop up over the remainder of the pageant, things that very infrequently make it into our presentations of that night, and frankly, the whole thing seems a little bit irreverent.

But why? Why does presenting this story in a way that more closely mirrors reality produce that kind of reaction in us? Why are we so averse to having that “Silent Night” disturbed by Mary’s pain or Joseph’s panic or the child’s cries? I don’t know for sure, but I have some guesses. One of them is that we have been raised singing songs that sanitize the night of our Lord’s birth. Our memories of this celebration are tied up with the sweet melodies of carols, and the beautiful words that attempt to describe an event that is so incredible that we continue to have trouble wrapping our minds around it. Another is that we have become so caught up in the trappings of the season and our own hectic lives that we yearn for a time of peace and quiet and calm, and the celebration of Christmas is perhaps the one time of year that our culture allows us to muse on those realities without mockery. The last, and perhaps the most significant, is that we seem to have this idea that because God’s ways are higher than our ways, the incarnation couldn’t possible have been as messy as our lives actually are.

If God chose to be born in our world, then it couldn’t have looked the same way as it did when ordinary folks like you and me were born. It’s inconceivable that Christ could have chosen such a birth, a birth that was accompanied by the fear or the anguish or the anticipation or the messiness of human existence. And yet, that’s precisely what happened, and that’s precisely what this event is all about. It’s about God making the choice to fully enter into our world, to leave the place where “all is calm and all is bright” to be present in a world weighed down by “the hopes and fears of all the years”.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t sing our carols. I love “Silent Night” as much as the next guy, and I look forward to singing it by candlelight later in this evening’s service and adding another beautiful memory of this celebration to the ones of years past. But as a father of three young girls who has been kept up many a night by the cries of a sick or scared or restless child, I’m convinced that Christmas is about something more. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the knowledge that Christ is just as present to us in all our not-so-silent days and nights as in those fleeting moments of peace and calm that sometimes descend upon our world. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the conviction that the Christ who was attended by angels and shepherds is attended in our own day by the lonely and marginalized and hurting people of our world. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the promise that in Christ the song of the angels continues to reverberate through our world, cutting into the songs of fear and anger and hostility that are playing on loop around us to sound a note of hope and joy.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for you this night and throughout the season to come is that you would know once more the joy of Christ’s presence in your midst. May your gatherings be illuminated by the sun of righteousness. May your relationships be leavened by the peace that passes all understanding. May your travels be safe and your homecomings restful. But more than that, may you be reminded all year of God’s grace and love for you and for our broken world, grace and love that flow in and through us, so that every silent night and crazy day will find a measure of hope and peace. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas to you and your and to our whole world! Amen.