Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas

Well, it's my last half day or so in the office before Christmas. Tomorrow I'll probably rest up a bit amid cleaning the house. My wife and oldest daughter are just getting over the flu. I had it last weekend. At least we've all got it over and done with before Christmas. 4 years ago everyone but me was sick right at Christmas.

Sunday morning we'll have a service of Lessons and Carols for Advent then Sunday night we'll have Candlelight services of Holy Communion at 7 & 11. Santa always comes while we're at the 7 o'clock service so then we go home and open all our presents. On Christmas Day we don't have worship. We used to but nobody came so we cancelled it. That's the day when my in-laws will arrive. Then on Boxing Day we'll head to my parents' place. Then on Wednesday I'll probably make my way into the office to try to come up with a sermon for next Sunday.

Anyway, to anyone who actually comes by here and reads what I post, have a very Merry Christmas. And if you're interested, my Christmas Eve sermon is posted below.

Nativity of Our Lord—Christmas Eve
December 24, 2006
Luke 2.1-14 [15-20]
Thomas Arth

(Draw large chalk arrow on black board)
I've used this example here in church before.
I hope you're not sick and tired of it yet.
I figured there would be enough people here at Christmas
so that it would be new to some.
And for those who've seen and heard this before,
I think it bears repeating
so this probably won't be the last time I use this example.
It comes from a booklet written by Kelly Fryer called
"Reclaiming the ‘L' Word:
Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core"
In a section of that book she talks about grace.
She writes this:
"Grace is at the heart of the best sort of
‘bottom line' definition I have ever heard
of what it means to be a Lutheran.
I wish I could tell you from whom I first heard this definition.
But I can't.
I don't remember.
The way I do recall it,
through the fog of personal mythology
that sometimes develops as time goes by,
is that he was a visiting professor on campus
my first year of seminary.
And, forgive me,
he was just not holding my attention this particular day.
It was a beautiful day on campus
and I wanted to be outside playing.
Instead, I sat in the amphitheater with my classmates,
listening to a lecture about some long-dead theologian.
I was bored.
And I don't think I was alone.
He must have known that we weren't listening
because he suddenly slapped his notebook shut
and stopped talking.
He wasn't going to waste one more breath on us.
But, before he left the room,
he picked up a piece of chalk and went to the board.
He drew a gigantic ARROW, pointing straight down,
stood back, and said:
‘If you understand that,
you understand everything you need to know
about what it means to be a Christian ...
who also happens to be a Lutheran.'
And then he left the room.

"We just sat there staring at it,
this enormous, stark ARROW pointing straight down.
And then I thought the most logical thing I could think,
given everything that had just happened,
‘He thinks we're all going to hell.'

"The next time we gathered for class,
he began by drawing that same arrow on the board.
This time, as he began to speak, he had our full attention.
‘Here's what this means,' he said.
‘God always comes down.
God always comes down.
There is never anything that we can ever do
to turn that arrow around
and make our way UP to God.
God came down in Jesus.
And God still comes down, in the bread and in the wine,
in the water and in the fellowship of believers.
God ALWAYS comes down.'"

I love that example for defining Lutheranism.
Now, Lutherans don't have a monopoly on grace
or talking about grace or teaching about grace.
The grace of God runs through the whole Bible.
God tells Abraham and Sarah,
"I will bless you so that you will be a blessing,"
not because of anything they had done to deserve blessing
but because God always comes down.
God tells Moses,
"I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt,
I have heard their cry ... I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them."
In the reading from Isaiah we heard that
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined."
These were words of hope
that God would free the people of Israel
from their subjection to Assyria
and bring in an everlasting realm
of freedom and peace,
not because the people were particularly deserving,
but simply because God always comes down.
And tonight we celebrate Christmas,
when God came down in the form of a tiny baby
to a young couple who had no place to stay
but with the animals.
God came down to free us once again.

Now, I've heard plenty of statements over the years
telling us what Christmas is all about.
Please don't take offense
if you've in fact said some of these things
or believe some of these things.
I'm sure there's a piece of truth to all of them.
I'm sure you've all heard something like this.
From a child you might hear that
"Christmas is about presents!"
I'm sure if we're all honest with ourselves
we'd admit that there was a time in our lives
when all this going to church
and hearing the story of the baby Jesus and angels and shepherds
and all of the rest of the things
we're supposed to say Christmas is about,
took a back seat to the main event of Christmas,
finally getting at the presents under the tree.
Maybe as we got older, more mature,
that childhood sentiment developed into something like,
"Christmas is about giving" (with a bit of getting too).
That's the kind of thinking that gets a large retail chain
to decide that some of its stores should stay open 24 hours
for the last week before Christmas.
Now, I like getting some presents and I like giving presents,
although sometimes it has become quite overwhelming.
But tonight I'm here to say
that Christmas is not about presents,
is not about giving,
is not about getting.

Maybe you've heard something along the lines that
"Christmas is all about family."
There must be some truth to that
because last weekend we got together
with some family that I hadn't seen since last Christmas. Tomorrow and Tuesday we'll be with more,
and this Friday we'll be gathering with yet more family.
Even in our church family we see people this night
who we don't often see
because they've come home to their family for Christmas.
Well, tonight I'm here to say
that Christmas is not about family.

Another statement you might have heard is that
"Christmas is all about the children."
I'll admit that this season and this night and tomorrow morning
are a magical and exciting time for children.
Often our fondest Christmas memories come from our childhood
or have something to do with our own children or grandchildren.
But I tell you that Christmas is not all about the children.

Finally, some might tell you that
"Christmas is all about traditions."
That's a statement that encompasses many things.
For some it's the traditions that make Christmas.
Like what order the ornaments go on the tree.
When do you begin to decorate?
How do you decorate?
Traditions that make Christmas
might have something to do with a favourite carol or song,
a favourite movie,
certain cookie recipes that you just have to bake.
Maybe it's a turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce
and all the rest of the trimmings that go with it.
For some it's just not a proper Christmas without snow.
Oh, our traditions are important to us
and they're a wonderful way for us to celebrate Christmas.
But, I'll say it once more,
Christmas is not all about traditions.

Christmas is not about presents or giving
or family or children or the many traditions.
If it was then some, maybe a lot of people,
would be disqualified and excluded
from having a "real" Christmas.
Would it be Christmas without presents?
We do our best to help the poor.
Santa's Helpers and so many different toy drives,
the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox campaign,
all try to give some Christmas joy
to those who are less fortunate.
But if someone, somewhere, somehow,
had to go without a present at Christmas
would that disqualify or exclude them
from having a "real" Christmas?
Would it be Christmas without family or without children?
For one reason or another there will be people
who are alone this Christmas.
Maybe a loved one died.
Maybe a marriage broke up.
Maybe family has moved away
and there's no way to be with them.
Maybe some argument has strained family relationships
and they won't be together this Christmas.
Would that disqualify or exclude them
from having a "real" Christmas?
Would it be Christmas without all of the traditions
and the "stuff" that surrounds the season?
The tree, the decorations, the carols on the radio,
the festive meal with all the trimmings
certainly add to the celebration
but would not having them disqualify or exclude you
from having a "real" Christmas?
So if Christmas is not about presents or giving
or family or children or the many traditions
then what is it about?

(Go and trace over arrow)
This is what Christmas is all about.
It's about God coming down.
God came down in Jesus and God continues to come down
so that no one is disqualified or excluded.
God comes down for sinners.
God comes down to the lonely.
God comes down to the poor.
God comes down to the greedy.
God comes down to those who party too hard.
God comes down to those who are mean or selfish.
God comes down to those who are generous and kind.
We can't help but mess things up in our lives and in our world.
God still comes down.
We may be sad or worried or sick.
God still comes down.
And God doesn't come down to smite us,
to punish us, to judge us and find us wanting or failing.
God comes down to love us, to heal us, to save us.
And remember, there's nothing we have to do or can do
to turn that arrow around and make our way up to God.
God comes down,
not once we're good enough,
not once we've done a certain thing or said a specific thing
that will convince God to come.
On the first Christmas night,
when God came down in that baby in a manger,
some messengers from God, angels,
also came to some shepherds.
They didn't proclaim the message in palace halls but in fields.
They didn't proclaim the message to the high and mighty,
but to the poor and lowly.
And what was the message?
"I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
who is the Messiah, the Lord."
And the sky was filled with those heavenly messengers singing
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among all humankind,
with whom God is pleased."

The angels sang for joy because God had come down.
And God still comes down.
Not just to Lutherans.
Not even just to Christians.
God comes down.
God came down in Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem.
God comes down as we gather in worship,
and we celebrate that with hymns and prayers
and presents and family
and all our varied traditions.
Light shines in darkness.
God has come down.

1 comment:

Inheritor of Heaven said...