Christmas Eve/Day Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

A voice has cried out. In the darkness. Amongst the hay. A song of hope. It sounds like a scream but it rings of new life. And it leaks like a night-light between the cracks of barn board.

I wonder what it was like for Joseph? Hearing that voice. Did it wake him? So exhausted from the coaching and the pushing. Or was he there the whole time. With each squeeze and release. Each push and growl. Waiting with eyes the size of planets.

What about Mary? So young but strong. Did she rush into the stable like a wheel-chaired woman dilated at 10 or did she sit in that cold straw for hours, brushing the spiders off her knees? Did flies bite her bare breasts and legs and toes, as the contractions tore into her? She must have worn a trench in that mud floor. Walking lap after lap, only to pause and breathe her way through the pain. I wonder if Joseph was close by holding her hips or did she just need some space to do this? It’s hard work you know. Giving birth to something. Whether it be a child or a dream. You never know how it’s going to go.

We don’t know any of the answers to these questions. Luke never really says what it was like. For a story that is supposed to be all about Jesus, it’s a poorly scripted screenplay. Did you notice that? The whole thing takes two verses:

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

That’s it. That’s all we get. Two verses. And the baby isn’t even given a name. Jesus isn’t the star of this show; he’s a cameo.

That’s kind of like Jesus though, isn’t? Not to make it all about himself. Always concerned about other people and what they are up to. Instead the real stars of the show are the shepherds. The ones out in the fields. The ones watching over their flocks by night. That’s how we know them. But they were known by other titles. The outsiders and low-lifes. The bottom rung, discard-able people. They were the liars and thieves; the degenerates and a waste of space. Lumped together with the tax collectors and prostitutes, shepherds were perpetual sinners. The unclean folk.

You can imagine how it is for them. Out in the fields. Kept away from the towns. Abandonment issues abound. Shunned by the regulars; discarded to the dogs. It would be hard to have any faith in God, I suppose – not being welcome in the Temple and all, with such dirty hands.  They had probably given up on God, just so they get one with their so-called life.

And yet, here they are. Front and center of God’s story. With God’s angels above them and 12 whole verses, and even with words to speak. They are the stars in this story of God’s coming into this world. I wonder what that was like for them – giving up on God, yet God not giving up on them? They became the first to know of God coming into the world. The last become first. That’s how it is with God.

“You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying a manger,” the angels sang to them. And they did.

For miles, they ran. As they drew closer, they could hear the glow of a baby’s cry. They were no longer shepherds; they were light chasers. And with a couple of taps on the sidewall, they were welcomed into this stable turned nursery. It was nice to have visitors, Joseph thought.

They didn’t stay long. But they left changed. And that light. The one found in baby Jesus’ cry. They became carriers of it. Bringing word to the world of this baby born the savior of the world. They were like a candle passing flame to other candles. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. Not in this place anyways. And certainly not singing.

So that’s the story. Of God coming into the world. A little bit of Jesus with a whole lot of outcasts. Don’t blink because it’s fleeting. Just like tonight. One verse more and Jesus is already 12 and teaching in a temple.

So let’s take a moment and drink it in. Let it wash over us and wonder where we fit in the story. Who are you in this story? Which part are you playing? Are you, Mary? Are you giving birth to God into this world? Or are you Joseph, the father and midwife, helping others give birth to God in this world? Or maybe you are the shepherds – having given up on God but suddenly you find God coming to you with good news to spread around.

But to ask such questions can bring more clutter to your life. And this season is already so full of clutter. Final exams and dysfunctional families. Gifts to buy and rooms that just never get cleaned. Credit card bills and shards of wrapping paper. Funeral planning and Christmas concerts. Perhaps even these words have only added to the clutter. So, no more questions. Let’s get to the point: God’s coming into the world. And you’re involved. You’re always involved. And always have been.[1] Sometimes it’s a train wreck and it can get pretty messy out there. In the life of God. But it can get pretty beautiful too. Like a napping newborn on the nape of your neck. Or strangers pushing your car out of the snow.

Who are you in this story? I like to think that it is a combination of all three. God’s like that. Giving people what they need but also using those same people to give others what they need. I like to think we play all the parts – Mary, Joseph, Shepherds. We all participate in God being born into this world. For as Meister Eckhart, a 14th Century mystic, once said,  “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?…God is always needing to be born.”  I mean that’s what this story is all about. God coming into the world.  Not in magic and flare, but in flesh and blood. Dipped in amniotic fluid. Not yesterday, or last year, or 2,000 years ago, but today. Right now. And tomorrow too.

And, however it happens, God being born into this world, you’re involved. I don’t know how exactly. That’s your job to figure out. All I know is that this thing. This life of God? It’s got your fingerprints all over it. It’s a part of you and you a part of it. You have been involved for some time now. Since the first time the world heard your voice crying out. A song of hope exiting those young lungs of yours. A ray of light seeping through the barn boards, or the hospital walls. Huh. Looks like you’re playing the part of Jesus too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] I am indebted to Marc Ostlie-Olson for this insight.

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Sunday, December 16th, 2012 – Servant’s Song – Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11

“’Comfort, comfort, now my people; tell of peace!’ So says our God. Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow’s load.” ELW 26

“In deepest night, in darkest days, when harps are hung, no songs we raise, when silence must suffice as praise, yet sounding in us quietly, there is the song of God. When friend was lost, when love deceived, dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved, so with us in our grief God grieves, and round about us mournfully, there are the tears of God.” When through the waters winds our path, around us pain, around us death, deep calls to deep, a saving breath, and found beside us faithfully, there is the love of God.”  ELW 699

These are the words of hymns that were posted to Facebook on Friday afternoon.

This is what we do in the midst of tragedy and need – we sing. We sing hymns from our faith; we recite psalms we know by heart. We pray the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Because these are words we can say when there are no words to say. It is what Jesus did on the cross, crying out the words of Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In light of this, in light of the tragic events of Friday, this text from Philippians seemed all the more appropriate.  Philippians is the Apostle Paul’s farewell letter to a congregation that is precious to him. While Paul’s situation is not the same as those in Newtown Connecticut, he is no stranger to darkness and evil, suffering and pain.  He sits in prison as he writes this farewell letter, believing that it will be his last letter because he would soon be killed. The other side of it is that life for the Philippians wasn’t looking so good either. As Christians they were likely to be persecuted for their faith. So like a good mentor, a good parent, Paul gives them guidance about how to live their life going forward, in light of what is their ever-evolving reality.

He tells them to love one another, he tells them to find a way to come together, he tells them to not be selfish, but to consider other people before considering yourself. And then…he sings. He sings to them one of their songs, an ancient hymn, known as the Christ Hymn. Because that’s what we do when facing insurmountable struggles in this life – we sing. Because there are no other words.

Through this hymn, Paul reminds his people who Christ is: though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –even death on a cross.

Jesus empties himself. He takes the form of a slave. Jesus humbles himself to the point of death. Does that sound like a god to you? Does that sound like the all-powerful, all-controlling God? No. Which means, maybe as Christians, we have to remind ourselves that the god found in Jesus Christ, the god who created the heavens and the earth, the god who seeks always to give life is not like the god we often think about. God is so head over heels in love with this world that God pours God whole self out into the world. God empties God’s self. God is so in love with the world that God becomes weak and vulnerable. God takes on the very flesh of the world and becomes a part of it. God even loves the world so much that God is willing to die for the world.

This Christ hymn, this ancient song, says that Christ became a slave, a servant. A slave or a servant is one who bears the life of another on their shoulders. Which then means that to be like God means to bear the lives of others on your shoulders. Or to witness God at work in the world is to see other people bearing the lives of others. So, when we hear about teacher protecting her students, that is God at work in the world. When hear about a teacher reading to her students so that her voice would drown out the gunfire. When police enter to care for the wounded and when a coroner stays up all night to care for these precious bodies, that is God at work in the world.

So let us not forget who this God in Christ is. As this ancient hymn sings, the God found in Jesus is a god so in love with the world that he would become vulnerable and become part of creation.

Which means God’s heart was the first to break on Friday morning. And like most of us, God will not be comforted this weekend either. God will not be consoled. And that even God begs the question, “Why?”

May we remember that when all seems lost, when the darkness seems to have finally closed in on us, may we remember to sing. To sing the hymns of our past so that they might break through our hard hearts and bring to light the promises of Christ Jesus – to be with us. To stay with us. To bring light out of darkness.

I recently heard a story about a man who mother was in hospice for three weeks before she died. In that first week, he did everything he was supposed. He said, “I love you, Mom. Thank you, Mom. You’ve blessed me, Mom.” But after a week, you stop saying those things because to keep saying them seems to almost cheapen them. And instead, a certain type of silence falls into the room. In the second week, the family was gathered together keeping vigil one night and the room was filled with silence because no one knew what to say. And then all of sudden, one person started singing – A mighty fortress is our God. They were all Lutherans, so they all started to sing it together.  After that, they started to sing every hymn that would come to mind out of the old hymnal. And then he said, “All of a sudden, it dawned on me…this is why we learn these hymns and psalms, for a moment like this.”

“In deepest night, in darkest days, when harps are hung, no songs we raise, when silence must suffice as praise, yet sounding in us quietly, there is the song of God. When friend was lost, when love deceived, dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved, so with us in our grief God grieves, and round about us mournfully, there are the tears of God.” When through the waters winds our path, around us pain, around us death, deep calls to deep, a saving breath, and found beside us faithfully, there is the love of God.”  Amen.

Sunday, Dec. 9th, 2012 – Song of Light, a sermon on Isaiah 42:1-9

Isaiah 42:1-9

 

It was January 12, 2010. Three Lutheran seminarians were sitting at a table playing cards in Port-au-Prince Haiti. They had just spent much of the day helping a nurse care for people living in the slums. All of a sudden, the ground began to shake. And shake. And shake. And shake.

Ben Larson, his wife, Renee, and their cousin, Jonathan, stood up realizing that it was an earthquake. And they waited for it to stop. But it didn’t. So they stammered around trying to keep their balance and escape out of the house. And then, in an instant, the two floors above them collapsed. Jonathan and Renee dug themselves out, but not Ben. Ben was nowhere to be found.

As Renee and Jonathan stood on the roof of this building, waiting for the aftershocks to end, all Renee could think about was finding her husband, Ben. A man who had been in the same building called out to them. He could hear Ben’s voice coming from the same hole they had just crawled through. But they couldn’t go back in it; it was too dangerous. So Renee stuck her head in the hole and she could hear Ben. He was singing. He was singing a hymn but with his own words – “God’s peace to us we pray.” She yelled to him that she loved him and urged him to keep singing. But the singing stopped. Renee knew that it was over.  Later, Ben’s cousin shared with her that Ben had once said that he didn’t want to die in any sort of heroic way. He just wanted to die singing. That’s who Ben was.

Friends, today is the second Sunday of Advent. We are talking about the songs in Scripture and the songs that we sing. God promises that we shall have a song to sing. That, in fact, our lives sing.  Which means we have a voice. We have something to say. Something worth listening to.

Last week, we talked about how our song becomes a part of God’s song. So have you sang this past week? Perhaps some of you have sung in choir or at school. Maybe you sang in the car on your way to work. Some, I know, sang at the funeral of a loved one.

When you think about it, Ben’s song was a song of light. As we just learned, light shines in darkness, like a night light, helping us to not be so afraid. Giving us hope that in the darkest of nights, morning will come. Ben’s song was a song of light; it cascaded up and out of the darkness of rubble. It was a blessing to the world – “God’s peace to us we pray”; a word of hope coming out of tragedy.

Today we turn to Scripture and also find a song of light. In the reading from Isaiah, the context, the setting is that the people of Israel have been marched into exile. Forced into slavery in a foreign land. It is a bleak period in the life of God’s people. Jerusalem, their city, burned to the ground. The temple, their house of worship, in ruins. For forty years, the Israelites have endured profound loss and suffering.  From the looks of it, the God of Israel and the people of Israel had been defeated.

Torn from their homes that have now been destroyed. Sent into a land where you and your people are nothing but worthless slaves. The injustice is haunting. It is like everything that mattered most to them in their life had been crushed and buried beneath a pile of rubble.  One cannot help but feel helpless and hopeless.

Have you ever felt like that? Helpless and hopeless? Like your whole life, everything that you love, everything you worked for, is buried in ruins? Shaken and shattered by the sudden earthquakes of a lost job or a lump deemed cancerous? Or mean friends? A failed marriage? Or chronic busyness?

That’s how it was for the Israelites for 40 years – helpless and hopeless. But then, out of nowhere, someone is singing. And it is the most beautiful song. A song of light. “Here is my servant,” the voice of God sings, “in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations.” Justice. The servant of God will bring justice. To those in exile, those living in the midst of injustice, justice is what you long for. It is salvation.  This servant will not break those who have already been bruised. He will not snuff out those whose light has already grown dim. A servant of the Lord, Isaiah says, is coming into this desolate land of exile to make all things new. One coming as a light to the nations. To cast out the cold darkness. To restore and resurrect.

Sometimes, it can feel like your whole life is buried in the rubble. But then, in an instant, light can break through when you least expect it. Have you ever experienced that? You find yourself in the middle of a terrible day (or perhaps week, or month), and out of nowhere everything turns on a dime. Maybe it was simply a free coffee gifted to you by the clerk at the gas station, or an old friend calling out of the blue, or maybe even just your favorite song being on the radio the moment you turn it on. Immediately, it feels like someone has poked a hole in your shroud of darkness and light is now leaking in. It doesn’t solve your problem by any means; it doesn’t mean your pain is erased. It’s just not so hopeless anymore. It’s not so dark. You’re reminded you’re not alone.

For Renee, hearing Ben sing didn’t save Ben.  But I imagine it gave her a ray of hope, string of light in the midst of her darkest day. That even in the midst of death, Ben sang. He died doing what he loved, as he wanted to. Singing. And not just singing but singing words of hope…”God’s peace to us we pray.”

Isaiah talks about a servant of the Lord coming to restore justice to a forsaken people. This was Israel’s ray of hope. It was their light in the darkness of exile. As Christians, we often want to think of this servant of God who came to be a light to the nations as referencing Jesus. But Isaiah doesn’t think so. No, Isaiah has a different name for this servant of God. Israel. That is, the people of God. Isn’t that incredible? God’s hope for bringing restoration, and healing, and justice to the people of Israel, and the whole world, is Israel. God uses and is working within the people of God to heal and restore the people of God. In case you aren’t sure of who that is or includes, all you need to do is keep reading. Suddenly, this song of light gets specific.

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations.

Did you hear that? “I am the Lord, I have called you. I have taken you by the hand and given you as a light to the nations.” God uses and works within the people of God to heal and restore the people of God. And by people of God, I mean you. And I think you already know this. Consider how many of you have already felt the love of God come around you through the very people around you today – through prayers, through hugs after the loss of a loved one, through a warm meal after you’ve just given birth. You are the people of God and you are healing and restoring the people of God.  You are God’s song of light to the world.

God uses the people of God to care for the people of God.

The late Edmund Steimle, preacher extraordinaire, tells the story about when his wife died. It was the Saturday before Easter. They got up in the morning. She was fine. She was ill by mid-morning. By the afternoon, she was dead. He said, “I found myself in my Lutheran parish the next morning. With a congregation full of people in Easter clothes, with lilies and a brass choir singing the Easter hymns and they stuck in my throat. With what had happened to me the day before, I didn’t believe in the resurrection. I closed the hymn book. But as I listened to the congregation sing around me, I realized I don’t have to believe in the resurrection today. They are believing in the resurrection for me, until I can believe in it again for myself.”

God uses the people of God to care for the people of God.

Since Ben’s death, Renee has seen light sung into her life through the people of God in small, yet sustaining ways. It looks like a smile, she says. Or an embrace. Sometimes it looks like blaring the music and rolling the windows down and cranking up the heat in the middle of winter. And now she and the congregation she serves as pastor are singing their own song of light as they as they fulfill their mission, which is to accompany and walk beside incarcerated youth.

God uses the people of God to care for the people of God.

Just by gathering together here today, God is using you, the people of God, to care for one another through fellowship and singing. We come here week after week longing to be in the presence of God and to be part of God’s life. The good news is that you already are. Because not only do you have a song to sing. But you are a song. You are God’s song of light that God has sung into this world. Go and be that melody of light shining into the darkness of this world. AMEN

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012 – God’s New Song, a sermon on Psalm 96

Psalm 96

Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. These were mottos back when I was in high school and they are still making the rounds on bumper stickers and Facebook posts. They are still rippling through our culture. For as much as I think they sound cliché and are a little over used, there is something tried and true about them.  There is something about dancing when no one is watching or singing when no one is listening, or not caring if they are. Because something really honest comes out of us, I think. Something we aren’t always willing to show others.

A couple of years ago, I was at a Cloud Cult concert, a band with two members who hail from Owatonna. As my friends stood together like sardines listening and watching, a man nearby danced. And it wasn’t the tame body swaying and head bobbing seen in the rest of us.  His body lurched and labored; he clapped and shouted. At first, he just seemed like an annoying superfan. But as the night went on and the dancing endured, you could tell something was happening inside him. Something profoundly true about his life was being worked out and confessed in his dancing. He was communicating something desperate and deep, something honest about himself. Dance like no one is watching.

When I was in high school, I would sometimes listen to music in my room and I would sing. I would sing along with my tape or CD like I was the one stage. Not so much to imagine the fame and attention of being on stage, but as way of embodying the song. As if it was my song. One day, I was singing with such passion that I didn’t hear the creak of the door opening or my mom walk in. As soon as she caught my eye, I rushed to turn off the music and I was immediately embarrassed. I couldn’t even look her in the eye.  Part of that, I think, is because something really true was coming out and I was afraid for anyone to see it. Sing like no one is listening.

I think that is what happens when we think no one is watching or listening, or when we don’t care if they do. Whatever is most true about our life at that moment emerges from within us. It could be that life is so full of joy at that moment that it feels like you are bursting into a thousand points of light or it could be that the walls are crumbling all around you and everything is turning to dust. When we dance like no one is watching or sing like no one is listening, something really honest comes out of us. So, what is your song?

Sing to the Lord a new song, the Psalmist says. Which means you do have a song to sing. A song for God. A song God wants to hear. And in fact, it isn’t just you who sings. The whole earth, all of creation is called to sing. Peoples, nations, mountains. Even the trees of the forest sing.

If you come to our home, you’ll see that Lauren and I have hanging on our living room wall a piece of art. A high schooler painted it. Against a tan, earthy background and with a little piece of a tree branch stitched to the canvas, are words that read, “There are tongues in trees if we have ears to hear.” A friend of mine stood in front of that painting for a couple of minutes. He then turned to me and said,”I don’t get it.”

Have we forgotten? That the whole earth sings? Do we no longer have ears to hear it? Maybe this younger artist is prophetic when she paints those words – There are tongues in trees, if we have ears to hear. If we have forgotten that the trees have a song to sing, maybe we have forgotten that we have a song too. According to the psalmist to be part of creation is to have the capacity for song. So the questions isn’t whether we sing, but what? A song of courage or fear. A song of confidence or insecurity. A song of justice or oppression. Compassion or disdain. A song of peace or a song of war.

You have a song to sing. And songs are powerful.

When there is a great tragedy in a community, people will often gather by candlelight for prayer and for song. When we can’t find the words to tell someone how much we love them we make them a mixed tape or play list. Or when governments lord power over their people and become oppressive, citizens protest with songs. Songs are powerful.

Many years ago, the Berlin Wall was erected in Germany, separating families and preventing people in East Germany from escaping their Communist society to the Democratic West Germany. It was government lording oppressive power over its people. Over 20 years ago, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, citizens of Leipzig, in East Germany, peacefully protested. It was called the Velvet Revolution. On Monday nights they would gather at a local church to sing. Over two months, their numbers grew from just about 1,000 people to over 300,000 people. All of these people singing songs of hope, and protest, and justice, until their songs shook the powers of the nation and changed the world. Someone asked a military officer why they hadn’t silence that protest like they had so many others. “We had no contingency plan,” the officer said, “for prayer and song.”[1]

Songs are powerful. But do you even know that you have a song? I have heard some of you talk about this congregation and our ability, or is it lack of ability, to sing. Such comments are always said with humor, but there is also a little sliver of embarrassment attached to it too. Sure, maybe we are not always in tune or maybe we don’t even know the rhythm of the song. We just let the pitch of our voice rise and fall with the dots on the page. But in tune or out of tune, we can sing. And, in fact, we all have a song to sing. And we all have a song to teach.

What song do you want to teach your children, or grandchildren to sing? Will we share with them the songs of deep truth that lie within the caverns of our hearts? Will our songs point to the God who brings light out of darkness and who brings life out of death? In a couple weeks we are going to hear of a song that Mary sings to her unborn child. A song about bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. A song about tearing down walls. A song about filling the hungry with good things. Mary sings out of a deep place and trust that her song and God’s song are knit together.  May we trust the same about our songs.

Because songs are powerful and you are called to sing to the Lord your song. Because then it becomes part of God’s song. God’s new song. Sing like no one is listening? Yes. But also, no. Yes, let us sing in such a way that allows us to share the truth about our lives, whether it be a truth of struggle and defeat or of joy and hope. But let us also sing like someone is listening. Because someone is. God is listening. The world is listening. And the world has no contingency plan for prayer and song. You have a song to sing – to God and to the world. A song we all need to hear. Thanks be to God. Amen


[1] I am indebted to David Lose and his sermon on Psalm 96 for this story and much inspiration for this sermon.