Friday, December 24, 2010

Gloria in Excelsis Deo -- A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:8-20

Shepherds are tending their sheep in the hills near Bethlehem, when to their surprise a choir of angels gathers in the heavens and begins singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo. What a treat that must have been! After all angelic visits don’t happen every day, and it can get a bit boring sitting out there in the fields in the cold of night.

In the spirit of angelic visits, J.B. Phillips tells a wonderful story about the day when a senior angel takes a new recruit on a tour of the cosmos. This rookie angel is quite impressed by the grandeur of the cosmos – who wouldn’t -- but then, as they walk through the multitude of galaxies and stars, the older angel points out a small insignificant star and the planet that orbits around it. To the young angel, this "small rather insignificant sphere turning on its axis . . . looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball.” Why would this senior angel point out this plant? It seemed so insignificant and unimpressive in light of what she had just seen in her tour of the cosmos. In spite of his first impressions, the guide leaned over and said, look closely because this is the "visited planet."

"You mean, visited by . . ."
Yes, the senior angel replies, it has been "visited by our young Prince of Glory."

Now this news made no sense to the young angel. Why would the Prince of Glory stoop to visit this little planet?

The senior angel replies: it's not for us to know the reason, but remember, God isn’t impressed by size or numbers.

"Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?" Yes, said the senior angel, but God would prefer that you not call them "creeping, crawling creatures."

The increasingly skeptical rookie angel, couldn’t see the wisdom of this, and so the mentor takes the recruit back on a little tour of the past so that the younger angel could witness the glorious event described for us by Luke. As they watched this scene from above, they saw a tiny, but intensely bright, light shine in the midst of the darkness, and then they watched as the light was extinguished. The younger angel turned to the older one and asked, why would these creatures do such a stupid thing as to kill the prince of glory? But, then to his amazement, a bright blazing, radiant point of light emerged on the planet. That, said the senior angel is the resurrection of the prince of glory. What a glorious sight it was to behold, but the story isn’t over yet.

Watch said the older to the younger.

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

"You see what is happening?" asked the senior angel. "The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth."

"Yes, yes" said the little angel impatiently, "but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?"

His senior shook his head. "We simply do not know," he replied. "It is in the Father's hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it. He is working out His Plan upon it."

"Yes, I see, though I don't understand. I shall never forget that this is the visited planet." [J.B. Phillips, "The Angel's Point of View," in Behold that Star: A Christmas Anthology, edited by the Bruderhof, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 1996), 2-9.]
The angels sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo that night because the Prince of Glory has visited our planet. In visiting our planet in the person of the babe of Bethlehem, God brought into the open the promise of peace and joy for all of creation. It is as Isaiah declared:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6 NRSV)
But, the end of this story has yet to be written. As the senior angel said, only God has foresight to know where this story is leading. We don’t even have the same vantage point as the Angel, for we can’t look down upon the flow of history from above. All we can do is join with the Prince of Peace in the work of spreading the joy and the love and the peace that is embodied by the Christmas event. It is our calling as followers of the one whose birth we celebrate this night, to participate in spreading the light of God around the globe.

Tonight we will light our candles and sing "Silent Night" and then go into the world as light bearers with the song "Joy to the World" upon our lips and in our hearts. Like that littlest angel, we may not understand the “hows” and the “whys,” of God’s ways, but let us not forget that this is the visited planet, and that God has chosen to visit us in the one who was born the babe of Bethlehem. Therefore let us join the angels and boldly sing boldly: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's a Boy! -- An Advent Sermon

Matthew 1:18-25

Four Advent candles are now lit, which means that Christmas is close at hand. Except for some last minute shopping, mostly by husbands, all the packages should be wrapped, and either put under the tree or mailed. The kids, of course, are getting anxious. They’re shaking the packages and wondering about what’s inside the box. If it rattles, then it can’t be underwear or socks, and if it does rattle, then the imagination goes wild! Of course, everyone is on their best behavior, hoping that their fondest wishes will be fulfilled. But as you can see there’s still one candle that needs to be lit. The first four candles call on us to live lives of hope, peace, joy, and love, as we prepare ourselves to receive into our lives the full presence of God in the person of the Christ child. This last candle, the Christ Candle, represents the light that shines into the darkness of our world, lighting a pathway so that we might truly experience hope, peace, joy and love that are represented by the candles that we’ve already lit.

1. A MURKY START

As we ponder the meaning of these candles that we’ve been lighting these past four Sundays, and then look over at the Christmas tree, which is enwrapped by a multitude of lights, it should become clearer that part of the message of Christmas is enlightenment. For a moment let your mind drift to your evening drives through the many neighborhoods that we inhabit. Think of all the houses bedecked with Christmas lights. Normally dark streets can come alive with brightly colored lights, shining into the ever increasing winter darkness.

Even as Christmas is on the horizon, so is the Winter Solstice. In just two days, we will reach the point where the darkness of night reaches its fullest extent of the year, before the sun begins to reclaim the day from the darkness of night. It may be true that Constantine merged the Roman observance of the Solstice with Christmas, and that many of our Christmas traditions have their roots in this observance, but maybe that’s okay – as long as we recognize this to be true. Perhaps it’s appropriate that at the point at which the light of the sun pushes back the night, we will be celebrating the coming of the Son of God into the World to push back the darkness that has tried to take hold in our world.

This message of enlightenment is also present in the two gospel stories of Christ’s birth. Luke speaks of the angelic glory that breaks into the night sky, revealing the glory that is God, while Matthew speaks of a star that draws a group of sages from the east so that they might honor the one who is born king of the Jews.

There is much beauty in the traditional telling of the Christmas story, but we can also fall into a trap of romanticizing the story. Carols like “Away in a manger” envision the little Lord Jesus lying sound asleep, without a worry in his head, while Mary and Joseph, are surrounded by shepherds and magi, cooing at the little child. But, the biblical story is a bit more complicated than many of our beloved carols would suggest.

As Matthew tells it, an angel visits Joseph in a dream, and says to him: “Fear not.” Do you remember these words from last Sunday’s Cantata? “Fear not Joseph.” You see, Joseph has something to be concerned about. His betrothed is pregnant, and he’s not the father. By every right he can cast Mary off in shame, but being a good man, he wants to put her away quietly. But the angel, tells Joseph: Go ahead, get married, because this child, which Mary carries, is from the Holy Spirit, and he is a sign to the world that God is with us. In this dream Joseph learns the true message of Christmas: God is present and at work redeeming the world, through a mother and her child. Yes, Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is truly one of redemption, but before Jesus can redeem the world, Joseph must first redeem him and his mother, by claiming this boy as his own and by giving him a name, so he can have a future. Only then can he claim us as his own.

There are also hints of this redemption story encrypted in Matthew’s genealogy. Genealogies are fun, especially when we find skeletons in the closet. Those skeletons can be just as exciting to us as the family’s shining stars. Over all, this list that links Joseph to David and Abraham is unremarkable, except for the four women it mentions. Yes, four important but unusual women, appear in Jesus’ genealogy. Although Matthew doesn’t say anything about them, if we know their stories then we get a fuller picture of this one whose birth we’re about to celebrate. One of these women, Tamar, seduces her father-in-law, Judah, because he failed to provide for her. Rahab is the Harlot from Jericho who saves the Hebrew spies, while Ruth is a Moabite woman, a foreigner, whose great-grandson is none other than David. Finally, there’s Uriah’s wife, who bears David a son. Each woman plays a significant role in the life of God’s people and each woman, as is true of Mary, is claimed by God for a purpose. Yes, the Christmas story is one of redemption, Had Joseph not claimed Jesus as his son, then Jesus would have been born with a stigma. Fortunately, Joseph listened to the angel and took away that stigma, even as Jesus takes away ours by claiming us as his own. The story of Christmas reminds us that God doesn’t stand above the fray, untouched by human emotion and tragedy, No, even though darkness may surround us, God is present as the light that cannot be extinguished.

2. THE WORD OF SALVATION

Matthew says very little about Jesus’ birth, but he does emphasize the naming of Jesus. Unlike today, names back then carried meaning. When we name our children we don’t think about what these names mean, we simply choose names that are either popular in our culture or represent a family relationship. Since most parents want to make sure that their kids don’t have odd names, unless, of course, they’re from Hollywood, so today we see a lot more Jacobs and Isabellas in the nation’s nurseries than we do Gertrudes or Homers. As all parents know, picking out a name for a child isn’t easy, but in this case the parents had help from an angel, who tells Joseph to name the child, who is to be born to Mary, Yeshua, which means "he will save his people from their sins." By giving him this name, Joseph affirms God’s call on the life of Jesus, who will bring healing to a fragmented and broken world. Yes, in him the world’s pain, suffering, disappointment, and terror will be replaced with hope, peace, joy, and love. Because of him, the darkness that lays claim to our world will begin to dissipate and lose its hold on our lives. In giving him this name, Joseph is affirming God’s choice to redeem us, even as God chose to redeem and work through Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife, better known to us as Bathsheba.

3. EMMANUEL IS WITH US

As we consider Matthew’s presentation of the Christmas story, we find ourselves standing on a river bank, looking across the water, into the Promised Land. While we can see Christmas on the horizon, Advent isn’t finished with us yet. Remember the words of our opening hymn: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God to appear. " Is this not the cry of our hearts, that God’s realm would come in its fullness bringing to our land hope and peace and justice? If we’re willing to join with God in this work of redemption by living into the realm of God, we’ll be ready to join in singing the chorus of this hymn: "Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!"

Yes, as the angel said to Joseph, you shall call him “Emmanuel” for God is with us, binding our wounds and setting us free. This hope is well stated, as the hymn continues: . "O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven's peace."

Although we live in a world torn by war and strife, our own lives need not be torn by bitterness and disappointment, for Emmanuel has come to “bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and fill the world with “heaven’s peace.” The choice is ours – will we accept this offer to live into God’s realm? Are we willing to cross the river into the Promised Land?

When we gather Friday evening to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel into our world, we will light the Christ Candle and gather joyfully to sing the songs of the season, before sharing together in the sign of Christ’s everlasting presence at the Lord’s Table. As we move through this week, may we prepare ourselves to hear a proud father named Joseph cry out to all who would listen: “It’s a boy.” And when we hear this proud father shout out in joy, we can offer our reply by singing: “come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the new-born King” (Angels, from the Realms of Glory, refrain).
 
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
4th Sunday of Advent
December 19, 2010

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Someone's Knocking at the Door -- An Advent Sermon

Matthew 3:1-12


Someone’s Knocking at the Door, Somebody’s Ringing the Bell
Someone’s Knocking at the Door, Somebody’s Ringing the Bell
Do me a favor and open the door and let em in. (Paul McCartney, “Let em in,” 1976)

I realize that this isn’t your typical Advent hymn, but Paul McCartney’s tune from the 1970s does catch well the message of the day. The question is: If there’s someone knocking at your door; shouldn’t you go let them in?

But, if you do open the door, you could be in for a surprise. That’s because the person could be, none other than John the Baptist, dressed in skins and toting a lunch pail full of locusts and honey. The reason he’s at your door is because he has a message for you: "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Vs. 2, CEB). This is a message about preparation – clean up and get ready, for the Lord is coming. Yes, this time it might be John, but next time it’s likely to be the Christ.

1. THE SPIRIT OF THE KING.

It is Advent, and John the Baptist figures prominently in the Advent story. That’s because this man of the wilderness serves as the advance man of God’s kingdom. To get an idea about what John is up to you might consider what happens when the President of the United States comes to town. Members of his staff will go ahead of him to make sure everything is ready. The Secret Service checks out the security, other handlers make sure the President has a place to stay, and they set up all the speaking opportunities. Nothing is left to chance.

As Jesus’ advance man, John wants us to be ready when he comes to visit. And that means, cleaning up our lives, so that we’ll be ready to welcome him into our midst. That is well and good, but maybe you have questions of your own about this coming king. Maybe you’d like to know what kind of king is coming, and what his reign will look like. After all, history has unveiled all kinds of rulers. Some have been benign, and others have been evil. So, what should we expect? John answers our questions by telling us that he is not worthy of even tying the shoes of the coming Messianic King, the one we’ve been waiting for, and that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire, instead of water.

As we consider what kind of ruler Jesus might be, Isaiah offers us some possible answers. According to the prophet, this hoped for ruler will come bearing gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. With these gifts in hand, the one who is coming will rule wisely and justly. He’ll judge not by sight nor by what he hears, because these senses can be easily corrupted. In fact, human judgments can be skewed by riches and power, but neither of these enticements will impress the coming judge who will rule on behalf of the poor and the meek. (Isaiah 11:1ff).

John’s message to us is this: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. Because, when the messiah comes, things will be different! Yes, I know, you’ve heard that one before. Politicians always come making promises that they rarely deliver upon. It’s not that they’re evil people, it’s just that making promises is easier than keeping them! But could this be the time when things are different?

2. THE BLESSINGS OF THE KINGDOM

The message of John is this – when the kingdom of heaven breaks into our world, it will bring a reign of peace, something we all long for. Indeed, as we lit the Peace candle this morning, we declared this to be our hope for the world. In lighting this candle, it is appropriate that we lift up in prayer those who live in areas that know not peace: Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, Mexico, Columbia, Israel and Palestine. And, there is that desire to see peace come to our own streets, homes, and even congregations.

True peace, Isaiah says, comes as the wolf lies down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion with the calf, and when the little child leads them. A little child comes to us with innocence, trust, gentleness, and friendship. Aren’t these the qualities we wish for ourselves? What a contrast there is between this image of the child king and the tyrants of history – Bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin. And if we think Americans are immune from violence and hatred, just think back a few years to Abu Graib. You might want to also remember that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world.

In the midst of this reality, we hear John calling out to us: The king is coming, so get ready! Change your hearts and your lives.

If we can look forward for a moment, we’ll discover in due time that this promised ruler will come to us in a most uncommon way. He’ll not be born in a palace in Jerusalem but rather in the little town of Bethlehem. Although there isn’t a manger in Matthew, perhaps it’s appropriate to imagine that setting for a moment. It helps us realize that this king won’t come into our lives in the same way as Caesar or Alexander, with armies and fearsome weapons in hand. Instead, this new born king comes bearing the message of Isaiah: the nations will beat "their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks," so that there might be peace on earth (Is. 2:4).

Does such talk seem unrealistic? Perhaps. And yet, this is the message that Jesus brings to us. It is the message he seeks to embody. It is a message of peace, hope and reconciliation. Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote: "violence provokes more violence and really solves nothing." Gandhi said, "an eye for an eye leaves the world blind." And Jesus said: love your enemies, even as the angels sing: “Peace on earth and good will to all.”

3. TRAVELING LIGHT

I realize that the lure of Christmas is difficult to ignore, even as we come to church for an Advent service. The bells are ringing and the songs are in the air, and would just as soon skip the preliminaries. And yet every journey requires preparation, and Advent is a season of preparation. It requires a bit of discipline in the face of our impatience.

If we will heed the call of the prophets, whether Isaiah or John the Baptist, and step back and consider the one who is coming, then we’ll be better able to heed his message of peace. And preparation for the coming king, according to John, requires of us repentance.

I realize that repentance isn’t one of our favorite words. Not only does it mean saying you’re sorry, it also means changing the way you think and live, and that requires us to do a bit of self-examination. But, if we’re willing to follow John’s lead, we will be ready to receive into our lives the one who is coming, the one who calls upon us to abandon lives of violence, anger, hatred, dishonesty, slander, while embracing God's peace, love, and grace. William Stringfellow wrote that this message of repentance is "no private or individualistic effort, but the disposition of a person is related to the reconciliation of the whole of creation." (William Stringfellow, "The Penitential Season," in Watch for the Light, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 2001).

And remember the other part of John’s message – the one who is coming will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Fire is the refiner of our lives, burning off the chaff, the parts of our lives that do not honor God or serve as a blessing to our neighbors. And having been refined by God’s fire, which goes beyond the cleansing waters of John’s baptism, we are then ready to receive the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers and guides us on the journey, a journey that we’re better able to take, because we no longer carry with us all that baggage that weighs us down and keeps us from enjoying God’s presence.

Consider for a moment the Dickens tale, where Marley tells Scrooge that the chains he bears are the chains he put on in life. According to the ghost of Marley, in death he carries the weight of his disregard for humanity. As we prepare for Christmas, like Scrooge, we’re invited to let go of the things, the attitudes, the grudges, that keep us from experiencing the joy of the kingdom. Travel light, is the advice that both Jacob Marley and John give us as we prepare to welcome the coming King.

In Revelation, we hear Jesus say to us: “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear this word from a former President, Jimmy Carter: “We are always in the presence of the Holy Spirit, as my sister Ruth seemed to know. Whether the door is open or closed is our decision” (Partners in Prayer, Advent 2004, Dec. 3, Chalice Press).

Yes, “someone’s knocking at the door,” will someone let him in?