Merry Christmas!

And so the day we have long anticipated is here! Christ is born, and born again in our hearts. Take a moment in your busy day to dwell on that.

What does Jesus mean to you?

What is joy?

What message will you carry from this day into tomorrow?

Isaiah 9 (New International Version)

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

May peace reign in your home and heart today, and may angel-songs fill the air. Merry Christmas!

A Light Has Dawned by Karen Warlitner

Behold!

I am hoping that you have a plan to worship tonight. There are so many online options! Even with pandemic restrictions, everyone should be able to enter into a place of adoration. The invitation is “O Come, Let Us Adore Him!” And so we do.

For me, there is only one way to tell the Christmas story. It has to be Luke 2. This is a reflection of my childhood, growing up in the Gibbsboro United Methodist church and hearing it read every Christmas Eve. Or it could come from my love of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang’s Christmas special, where Linus solemnly reads it in his pure, innocent voice.

One of my fondest memories of my childhood church is when I was in 5th grade, the pastor asked me to read this scripture on Christmas Eve. I was so honored and humbled. I practiced and practiced, and was ready when the time came. Little did either of us realize in the moment that it would not be my last time in a Methodist pulpit! Thank you, Rev. Davis, for giving me my start.

Luke 2 (New King James Version)

2 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Glory in the Highest

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill[e] toward men!”

15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

And on earth, peace.

And on earth, goodwill toward all.

May the Christ Child reign in your heart tonight.

And to All, a Good Night by Karen Warlitner

The Why of Christmas

Have you ever found yourself doing something over and over, and not even knowing why? I remember reading a sermon illustration many years ago about a young wife who was preparing her first Christmas dinner for her new husband. She took a beautiful, large, honeyed ham and promptly cut both ends off. Then she placed it in her roasting pan, covered it with foil, and put it in the oven.

Her husband watched this with interest. “Why do you cut the ends off?” he asked. She hesitated for a moment, and then replied, “I’m not sure. It’s the way my mother always did it.” Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she called her mother and asked why they always cut the ends off of the ham. Did it help it cook better? Did it add to the flavor? Did they prefer the ends to be crispy?

Her mother laughed and replied, “Oh, none of those reasons. I had to cut the ends off because my pan was always too small to fit the whole thing.”

Sometimes it helps to know the why.

We have talked a lot about the “who” of Christmas, the “where” of Christmas, the “how” of Christmas, and even the “what” of Christmas. Did you ever think about the “why?”

Titus 3 (Contemporary English Version)

God our Savior showed us
    how good and kind he is.
He saved us because
    of his mercy,
and not because
of any good things
    that we have done.

This passage helps us to uncover why Jesus was born. He came to save us because he is good, kind, and filled with mercy. But most importantly, he came to save us because we could not save ourselves. We are saved by grace through faith, and not by ANYTHING we can do on our own.

Do you get that? You can’t be “good enough.” Thankfully, that also means that you can be “bad enough” to not qualify for God’s grace. You can’t earn it or be ineligible to receive it….thanks be to God for that.

God washed us by the power
    of the Holy Spirit.
He gave us new birth
    and a fresh beginning.
God sent Jesus Christ
our Savior
    to give us his Spirit.

Jesus treated us much better
    than we deserve.
He made us acceptable to God
and gave us the hope
    of eternal life.

Why was Jesus born on that first Christmas? To make us acceptable to God and to give us hope for eternal life. He cleanses us of our sin and gives us new birth through water and the spirit.

The best part of it all is that we’ve been given something so much better than we deserve. Thanks be to God!

Jesus is the Light of the World by Cheryl Lynn Smith

How Beautiful

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to film a children’s sermon in a sheep pasture, surrounded by live sheep. This is a first for ya girl. It was a beautiful and startling experience. The plan was for me to sit on a chair in the middle of the open field and read a little story that I had written about Jesus’ birth as told from the perspective of the animals at the manger.

Cue the sheep!

So the kind sheep handler positioned the flock just off camera and was ready to spread out their feed around my chair. The idea was that when the camera rolled, they would be surrounding me as I read, peacefully eating at my feet. It almost went like that. Almost.

The sheep were apparently excited by my reading, which of course included a perspective from one of their own…a sheep named Shirley…who, it turned out, speaks with a British accent for some reason. Or maybe it was the snack being strewn about. In any case, when the camera rolled and the feed was distributed, they charged hard…so hard that my camera girl almost got sideswiped. And then as soon as the snack was gone, so were the sheep. I was alone in the pasture. Two of them eventually returned to give me the side-eye, but that was it.

When I returned home, my dog went nuts. Apparently the sheep residue that I brought in on my shoes was quite the treat for her overactive nose. How beautiful are the feet that announce the good news of the sheep pasture!

In our passage today, the prophet Isaiah raises up the beauty of the messengers who bring good news. The Messiah is coming! Lift up your voices and sing:

Isaiah 52 (New Revised Standard Version)

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Jesus came to redeem his people….ALL his people. With the birth of the Messiah, the entire world saw the salvation of God in one holy birth. The message of peace that Jesus brought is a message of hope for the world, and that message is as beautiful today as it was the very first time when cows, donkeys, and fleeting sheep heard it in a little town called Bethlehem.

10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.

And the glory of the Lord was revealed! So go and share the good news….your God reigns.

My Girl Shirl Photo by Island Farm

At Last

We are finally in the last stretch of our holiday waiting. By the end of this week, Christmas will be here. All of the preparation, decision-making, and cleaning/shopping/wrapping/baking will be presented in their full glory (for better or worse) and the day will arrive.

Think of all the things you have to wait for….college graduations, childbirth, wedding days, the internet guy to come…waiting is hard! But it is often in the waiting that we are made ready for the next step.

Our passage in Hebrews speaks of a waiting time that is finally over. From the first sin until the advent of Jesus Christ, we waited.

We were waiting for absolution.

We were waiting for redemption.

We were waiting for salvation.

We were waiting for a way out.

And then, at last, God sent his Son.

Hebrews 1 (Contemporary English Version)

1 Long ago in many ways and at many times God’s prophets spoke his message to our ancestors. But now at last, God sent his Son to bring his message to us. God created the universe by his Son, and everything will someday belong to the Son. 

God’s Son has all the brightness of God’s own glory and is like him in every way. By his own mighty word, he holds the universe together.

Just ponder that for a moment. God’s Son holds the universe together. On days when it is all falling apart, on days that are dismal and hopeless, on days when there is no light at all, he holds the universe together.

After the Son had washed away our sins, he sat down at the right side of the glorious God in heaven. He had become much greater than the angels, and the name he was given is far greater than any of theirs.

Jesus has all the brightness of God’s glory to shine into our bleakest winters. His word is sure. His word is good…and his word lasts forever.

So no matter where your heart is on this last stretch of waiting, take comfort. The One whose name is greater than any other name holds YOU in his heart.

Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.

Peaceful Waters by Michelle Robertson

Secret Keeping

What is the best secret you have ever kept? Was it yours, or someone else’s? Secrets are generally kept for two purposes…either to protect someone or something, or to orchestrate a surprise.

Romans 16 comes along as a surprise this week. We’ve been tickling our toes in the Advent waters of Isaiah, Luke, and the Psalms, but today we are suddenly thrust into the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans was written well after the birth and death of Jesus, so you will not find any Christmas carols here.

But what you’ll discover is probably the most significant part of Jesus’ birth narrative, which is often overlooked in our lackluster worship experiences and traditional, same-as-last-year Christmas Eve messages.

That thing is mystery.

We have lost our sense of mystery. Not just about Jesus, but about everything. Nothing surprises us anymore. Movies are so formulaic, we can predict the outcome in the first five minutes. (Only two minutes for a Hallmark movie.) Television is worse. Politics, national affairs, the economy, even the pandemic all follow patterns and processes that are predictable to a degree. Think I’m wrong? Study the Spanish Flu of 1918. What we are dealing with today was predicted.

As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

The secret that Paul refers to in this last paragraph is a mystery that shook up the world. It was held in secret by the prophets for a time, and then revealed in due course in order to surprise the world.

Romans 16 (Common English Bible)

25 May the glory be to God who can strengthen you with my good news and the message that I preach about Jesus Christ. He can strengthen you with the announcement of the secret that was kept quiet for a long time. 

It was always assumed that the Gentiles would never have any part in what the Jews held as their own. A messiah was promised to come and redeem Israel. But there was a secret component to that…he would also redeem the rest of the world. Surprise!

26 Now that secret is revealed through what the prophets wrote. It is made known to the Gentiles in order to lead to their faithful obedience based on the command of the eternal God. 

The mystery of Jesus is that he came to lead his people, not in war against their oppressors so that he could establish his own kingdom, but into peace.

The surprise of Jesus is that he is God incarnate, God-made-flesh. He was born of a woman, walked among us, and was crucified for the sins of humanity.

The secret of his crucifixion is that it had been planned all along in order to save us.

The mystery of his resurrection caught the world totally off guard.

And here’s the not-so-secret of it all: if you accept Christ as your savior and put your whole trust in his grace, you, too, will share in the resurrection.

It’s time to let the secret out. Jesus was born in a manger so that he could die on a cross for the forgiveness of sins. May we all shed light on his glorious, absolute truth.

27 May the glory be to God, who alone is wise! May the glory be to him through Jesus Christ forever! Amen.

Snowberries by Mary Anne Mong Cramer

Sent

Have you ever had an experience where you were sent someplace that you didn’t want to go? I remember a time camping with my family in Canada when my mother sent my older sister and me to the little camp store. Our task was to purchase bread, which would seem like a little thing. However, the people there spoke French. We were coached on what to say, how to say it, and how to pay. I was totally discombobulated and very afraid of doing it wrong. Of course mother knew that the lady in the store also spoke perfect English, but she was trying to send us into a foreign experience to try something new and communicate in someone else’s language. The mission was accomplished, in spite of our resistance and fear.

Like all of you, I have been sent into unwanted places. I’ve been sent into the prisons to minister to broken people. I’ve been sent to a hospital bedside to pray as someone died. I’ve been sent to officiate weddings that I knew wouldn’t last. I’ve been sent to a place far away from the home I loved with no immediate prospect of finding a church to serve, or people to love. That is how I ended up on the Outer Banks…God surely did a reversal on that one!

Did you ever stop to think about how many people in the nativity story were sent somewhere they didn’t want to go?

Luke 2 (Common English Bible)

2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.

Joseph was sent by the Roman ruler to register his name so that taxes could be taken from him. He had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the privilege. You KNOW he didn’t want to go there.

 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.

“Great-with-child” Mary was sent along. We could not possibly imagine the discomfort and fear that such a journey meant to a young, pregnant woman. Dusty roads and sitting astride the back of a donkey while being exposed to the weather were just part of being sent.

 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

The innkeeper was sent to care for this couple while his place was at full capacity. He couldn’t bear to send them away, but surely he felt bad about sending them to the animal stable.

The innkeeper went where he was sent to provide hospitality to strangers. Joseph went to where he was sent out of duty and obligation. But Mary went where she was sent out of love. And because they all went where God sent them, the entire world was saved.

Where is God sending you? Will you go? Will you go willingly, or reluctantly? Will duty and obligation be enough to go on, or will you go where God sends you out of love?

Wherever you go, wherever God sends you, you are never alone. Thanks be to God.

Go Where God Sends You by Cameron Piland

When You’re Worried

A gold star to everyone who can name the movie that this song comes from:

When you’re worried, and you can’t sleep,

just count your blessings instead of sheep

And you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings!

If you said “White Christmas” (which not only refers to the snow, but the casting) you get a star.

This song is sung by Bing Crosby to Rosemary Clooney on a beautiful set created to look like a Vermont ski lodge. Rosemary’s character can’t fall asleep, so she goes in search of a snack. I like this girl. She meets Bing in the dining room, who offers her cold buttermilk, liverwurst sandwiches, and a song by a glowing fire pit. As much as I like snacks, I would have settled for just the song.

Covid fatigue has rendered a lot of us sleepless. And when we do fall asleep, many of us find ourselves awake again in a few hours. What is the best remedy, besides a snack? I mean if we give into that, COVID 19 will end up referring to how many pounds we have gained in this pandemic.

The answer is obvious…count your blessings.

Once upon a time there was a guy named Ethan the Ezrahite who wrote a maskil. A maskil, of course, is a technical term to designate the manner of composition or performance of a particular song. So this psalm was intended to be sung, perhaps around a fire for people who couldn’t fall asleep. In keeping with our theme, perhaps we could add some scat singing to this.

Ethan begins by counting his blessings:

Psalm 89 (New Revised Standard Version)

A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
    with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
    your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

When you’re worried and you can’t sleep, these are blessings that you can count on as well.

God’s steadfast love.

God’s faithfulness to all generations.

God’s grace is forever.

His heaven and his faithfulness are firm.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
    I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever,
    and build your throne for all generations.’”

The reminder that God made a covenant with David is the biggest blessing. Through David’s lineage, Jesus was born. He came to bring light into our darkness, hope into our despair, and eternal life into our earthly misery. When he comes again to establish his throne, every knee will bow, and pain and suffering will be no more.

So tonight, if you can’t sleep, just count your blessings! God’s love will sustain us all.

Counting Blessings by Michelle Robertson

Do Not Be Afraid

When is the last time you were deeply, mindlessly, overwhelmingly afraid? Not just a little frightened, like when a mouse darts across the floor, or a cockroach hands you the sugar packet when you open the cabinet, or your teenager asks for the car keys, but truly afraid?

Facing a life crisis such as a car accident, eviction, the sudden death of a spouse, a gun pointing at you, surgery….these moments can usher you right into cold, hard fear. Your body takes over and adrenaline pumps so hard through your system you that can’t breathe or even think straight.

Have you ever noticed that just about every time an angel appears in the scriptures, one of the first things they say is “do not be afraid,” and for good reason. The sudden appearance of a fiery, hovering, light-beams-for-eyes creature would be terrifying. That is often the response they received…even Mary was greatly troubled.

Luke 1. (English Standard Version)

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Do not be afraid of what is about to be asked of you.

Do not be afraid of this journey I am sending you on.

Do not be afraid of leaving your home and your family.

Do not be afraid to do God’s bidding.

Just go, and do not be afraid.

 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

What is God asking you to do right now that has you fearful? Is he calling you to go somewhere, leave your comfort zone, start or end something, let go of habits that are dragging you down, end a toxic relationship, or in some way do his terrifying bidding?

Do not be afraid. You, too, have found favor with God. He will be with you wherever you go.

Wherever You Go by Jackie Ruskowski

We Are the Church

Where is the strangest place you have attended church since March? A parking lot? A ball field? Your car? The front lawn of the church? Your living room?

As strange as these last few months have been for us, we have nothing on God’s people in King David’s time. They wandered the wilderness for years, obediently following the Ark of the Covenant as it traveled throughout the Promised Land in a movable tent. That tent was their church.

But after David had made himself comfy and cozy in his brand new palace, he remembered that God had no home. He began to think about that.

(Hmmm. Were David’s priorities in the right order?)

2 Samuel (Contemporary English Version)

7 King David moved into his new palace, and the Lord let his kingdom be at peace. Then one day, as David was talking with Nathan the prophet, David said, “Look around! I live in a palace made of cedar, but the sacred chest has to stay in a tent.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord is with you, so do what you want!”

Sometimes even well-meaning friends give you the wrong advice. God set Nathan straight.

That night, the Lord told Nathan to go to David and give him this message:

David, you are my servant, so listen to what I say. Why should you build a temple for me? I didn’t live in a temple when I brought my people out of Egypt, and I don’t live in one now. A tent has always been my home wherever I have gone with them. I chose leaders and told them to be like shepherds for my people Israel. But did I ever say anything to even one of them about building a cedar temple for me?

David, this is what I, the Lord All-Powerful, say to you. I brought you in from the fields where you took care of sheep, and I made you the leader of my people. Wherever you went, I helped you and destroyed your enemies right in front of your eyes. I have made you one of the most famous people in the world.

10 I have given my people Israel a land of their own where they can live in peace, and they won’t have to tremble with fear any more. Evil nations won’t bother them, as they did 11 when I let judges rule my people. And I have kept your enemies from attacking you.

God is so much more than a building. He is greater than four walls and a roof. The trouble with buildings is that they need constant repair, and sometimes donors end up worshipping the structure more than the Lord. Think I’m exaggerating? Look around. How many little brass people-plaques do you have in your sanctuary?

God’s “building” was going to be so much greater. He looked at David and decided to build a lineage that would run straight to Jesus. And Jesus would come to build a church of love, compassion, justice, hope, and peace.

Now I promise that you and your descendants will be kings.

I write this today to offer you a message of comfort. You may not be able to be in your “building” on Christmas Eve. You may not be in a sanctuary for many more months to come. But if we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic, it is that God is wherever his people are. That is the whole point of Christmas. The incarnation was about God coming to us to inhabit our world, our lives, our hearts, and our hopes and dreams for the future.

Christmas is all about God WITH us…Emmanuel.

Come, Lord Jesus! Come.

Sunset Church by Karen Warlitner