The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas DayJohn 1: 1-14
Last week I received my daily devotion by email, the one entitled, “In the Meantime.” Occasionally I forward some of the reflections provided by Rev. David Lose, to people in the congregation. When I read the reflection for December 18th, I was floored for a second or two.
According to Rev. David Lose, “Lutheran World Relief,” which is the American version of our Canadian Lutheran World Relief, was recognized by the popular and famous magazine, Consumer Reports.
You may be aware of Consumer Reports; it is an American magazine published monthly since 1936. It publishes reviews and comparisons of consumer products and services based on reporting and results from its in-house testing laboratory and survey research center. They accept no advertising, pay for all the products they test, and, as a not for profit organization, they have no shareholders. It also publishes cleaning and general buying guides.
Who hasn’t used Consumer Reports, especially when buying big ticket items like cars and appliances? I certainly have; it is essentially your consumer “Bible!”
And Consumer Reports speaks highly of Lutheran World Relief. Here is what Consumer Reports had to say:
Then Consumer Reports goes on to list Lutheran World Relief as a highly rated charity in the area of International relief and development. If you are going to spend, LWR is a good place to do it.
My first reaction was, “Really?” Has our Christmas shopping come down to this? Has our charity and generosity come down to the biggest bang for our buck and a favourable rating from Consumer Reports?
On the other hand, I did and still do, feel a source of pride that such a prestigious magazine would recognize a very important Lutheran ministry. However, there is a side of me that feels this is such a bow to consumerism and the need for our gifts to “perform” or carry some sort of “value,” a value that would be recognizable to the average consumer.
Beyond the approval of Consumer Reports, Rev. David Lose notes that there are lots of people who have begun to purchase “GOOD GIFTS” for Christmas. “Good gifts” are characterized as donations in somebody’s name that will help change another person’s life.
By way of example, the Top 5 “good gifts” purchased through Lutheran World Relief are:
1) Medical Supplies to support Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem,
2) Dairy Cows to provide nourishment and income for families in Peru,
3) School Supplies for children in Nicaragua
4) Chickens for families in El Salvador
5) Goats for families in Niger, Burkina Faso, India, Indonesia and Nepal. We would all agree that those are “good gifts” and I guess we should be grateful that even Consumer Reports recognizes this as such. And yet, you wonder what kind of “GOOD GIFTS” don’t make it into such publications. Speaking of “GOOD GIFTS,” how did you do this Christmas? It is 11 o’clock on Christmas Day and by this time, most if not all of the gifts that we have received, have been opened.
Are we happy with the gift, or gifts we have received? Are they “GOOD GIFTS?” As we consider our gifts, how do we consider THE gift? In the Gospel of John, we read the following:
'The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.' (John 1: 9 & 12).
THE gift has been unwrapped and it is in full view. Are we happy with THE gift? Is it functional? Does it work? Is THE gift, something that we can chatter about excitedly? Can you find out more about THE gift in Consumer Reports?
I think that when John wrote his gospel, he was thinking of similar questions. Biblical scholars believe that the John wrote this gospel towards the end of the first century. It was probably 80 or 90 years after the birth of Jesus and I think that his Christian community was struggling with those questions.
The people of those early Christian days were aware of the stories of Jesus’ birth, his death, resurrection and ministry, but they may have been struggling. They were very aware of THE gift, but they may have been asking themselves if it was functional, if it worked, if there was a meaning and purpose for THE gift, where the gift came from.
They had to take time to work with this gift, play with it, try it on, put it together, trying to come to some understanding about THE gift, and what THE gift meant. John likely watched his fellow believers working with the gift, trying to piece it together and he wrote those words. He tried to tell them about THE gift, where the gift came from and what it meant.
The gift of course, came from God. It is an odd gift, John tells them, it is a gift they least expected. Consider, says John that God has come to us in human form. “The Word became flesh and dwells among us........”
God is speaking and communicating to us in a way that has never been seen before. In this humble birth, God’s Word is coming through loud and clear....
Through the birth of Jesus, God has taken on human form. God has decided to participate in the human experience in the most complete way, by being one of us. God takes on all the human frailties, all the human possibilities, all the ups and downs, the twists and turns.
And this is the way that God has chosen to “save” us from ourselves, by becoming one of us. Later on, through the ministry of compassion, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God is going to speak words of forgiveness and eternal life.
That is quite a gift. I am sure Consumer Reports would approve. Amen.
The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
I invite you to have a look at the link provided above. Of course you will recognize the cartoon and it might give you pause to smile, maybe even reflect back upon some of your childhood appreciation of the contribution that Charles Schultz made to Christmas observances through his “Peanuts” cartoons.
I thought the cartoon and song were a wonderful way to reflect upon the spirit and goodwill that literally erupted on December 24, 1914. This Christmas Eve 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the peace that broke out in no-man's land in Flanders on December 24, 1914.
At the first Christmas of a hideous war, World War I, an informal truce broke out over two-thirds of the 30 miles of the western front held by the British Expeditionary Force.
Looking back on that stunning Christmas from the 1920s, a former infantryman who had shared the camaraderie across the lines could write: "Men who joined us later were inclined to disbelieve us when we spoke of the incident, and no wonder, for as the months rolled by, we who were actually there could hardly realize that it had happened, except for the fact that every little detail stood out well in our memory."
On Christmas Eve, 1914 at Plugstreet Wood, German soldiers put little Christmas trees on the parapet of their front-line trench. Thousands upon thousands of “table-top” Christmas trees had been prepared by German civilians and sent to the front, complete with candles affixed.
After lighting the candles on the little trees, the German soldiers sang “Silent Night,” then largely unfamiliar to British ears but instantly acknowledged as a carol of extraordinary beauty.
Moved to respond the British soldiers sang “The First Noël.” So it continued until, when the British sang O Come, All Ye Faithful, they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words Adeste Fideles.
French soldiers sang “O Holy Night,” and at one front, they even had a French opera singer stand out in no-man’s land to sing “O Holy Night,” to both sides.
By the way, their trenches were only 60 yards apart, so they had no trouble seeing each other, seeing the little Christmas trees, or listening to each other sing.
Soldiers got out of the trenches for a better look and listen and as they stood in no-man’s land, they realized that it was full of dead bodies. They decided to give those fallen soldiers a formal and proper burial the next day.
On Christmas morning they held a joint burial service between the trenches with chaplains from both sides, officiating.
With the bodies removed from the fields, soccer games sprung up along the front; there was not one England vs Germany fixture as such, rather a scatter of impromptu games, sometimes using a tin can or a rolled-up sandbag as a ball. Here and there a genuine leather ball was produced and a more serious contest attempted. A German lieutenant wrote of one such game: "We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established for a match on the frozen mud, and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2".
On Christmas Day, German and British soldiers lit each other's cigarettes, exchanged souvenirs, took group photographs, served up beer and rum between them, even gave each other haircuts.
The truce was not organised, nor, as it might be assumed, contagious, with units catching the spark from their neighbours. Rather, it was the spontaneous product of a mass of local initiatives.
Some of the front lines observed truces on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, some front lines observed truces until the New Year.
Sadly, the war continued, but there was no rush, no great desire to go on. They concluded their truces by sending messages to each other, that they would begin firing and warned their enemies to “keep their heads down. As the shooting began, they fired their artillery into the air to alert the other side that they had to go back fighting.
Generals noted that their soldiers were far too friendly in their regard of the enemy, so massive amounts of troops were shipped out, replaced by soldiers who did not experience that Christmas. Hostilities resumed in earnest.
The only Christmas truce in the history of war was observed that night 100 years ago; for one brief moment, in the most surprising and unexpected way, there was peace and joy.
Peace and joy in the most surprising and unexpected way.
Tonight, as we read the Christmas story, as we sing our carols, we hear the message of peace and joy.
Peace and joy when and where one least expects.
A group of shepherds sit on a hill tending to a flock of sheep, huddled together, trying to keep out the chill of the night air. They are shepherds, taking care of a rather menial task. They are not well paid, they are not held in high esteem by the rest of society, they are scraping by. The country they live in is not faring much better. Military occupation is the order of the day, the Romans could be especially cruel. Life was not the greatest and the pressure of the world closed in around everybody; not a lot of peace and joy.
Suddenly they are witness to a spectacle that likely left them shaking in their boots. They are witness to some sort of heavenly sight which gives them a message: AGlory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors.
The angels came before the shepherds and told them that they are blessed; peace and goodwill are theirs. Great joy is theirs. Peace is theirs. Yet, the shepherds may have wondered, how peace and good will and joy could possibly come to them. They were told by the angels that they were favoured, that they were blessed. But how could they be blessed?
As the cool night air nipped at their noses, it certainly did not feel like they were blessed. Like many of the people of their day, they wondered why their society struggled so much and they wondered how God would deliver them. They wondered why all these unfortunate things were happening to them. Why them? How would God be among them? Was this the way? But how could this birth of a child, in any way shape or form, bless them? How could they possibly derive any peace and joy from such an everyday event. They do not know, but they go to see this thing, to try and figure out how they were blessed with peace and joy.
Peace and joy, even in a manger?
Peace and joy for Mary and Joseph?
When Mary receives the announcement from the angel, that she is going to be pregnant and bear Gods son into this world, the angel tells her that God favours her, that she is blessed. But now, as she delivers this child, in the comfort of a barn, she probably wondered again, HOW God was blessing her. She probably told Joseph about the visit of the angel, because somehow Joseph had to reconcile this situation, in order to justify marrying Mary. She said that she was going to be blessed, that she was in Gods favour. All right, Joseph could go along with that, but..... here they were, poor and in desperate straits, trying to make a go of it in this barn. This did not feel like blessing, Gods favour, peace and joy.
On top of that, they would return to their rural home, in a poor part of the country, to poverty and a fairly grim way of life. God bless you? God favours you? Peace and joy? It probably did not feel like it at the time.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that God is blessing you, that you could possibly be in Gods favour. Sometimes it is hard to find the peace and the joy that is supposedly ours.
The closer we get to Christmas, the more elusive Gods blessing of peace and joy seems to be. So it seems to me that we compensate. The closer we get, the more elusive peace and joy seems to be, the harder we shop. And yet in my conversations with people I have discovered that they can shop til they drop, but the struggle continues. There is no fulfillment in the mall. The mall does not bless us with peace and joy.
Yet, God promises to bless us with peace and joy, now, here, today. The angels proclaim on this night, Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors.
A blessing for us, peace and joy from God in our midst; Immanuel: God with us; God with us in one of the most incredible and unimaginable ways, God with us simply as a baby
Peace and joy from knowing that somehow and in someway, God is with us in the ways we least expect.
It CAN happen. God CAN bless us with peace and joy, in the most unexpected of ways, even for us, even here today. And I hope and pray that it starts for some of you today. I am so glad that we are here tonight, I am so glad when Christmas Eve rolls around. Up to now, the world has been spinning very fast, the crush of the Christmas season has been overwhelming and crushing us down, but that is all over now.
Enough of the rush, enough of the shopping, now we are down to the real business and I am so glad that YOU are here tonight, to begin to experience the blessing of God, of peace and joy, in what the world regards as a most unusual way.
It is to take a break from the world, to know that God, Immanuel is with us. To take a moment in the quietness, to know that peace and joy WILL be ours, someway, somehow. It is promised to us, the birth of Jesus reminds us, the gift of faith confirms it.
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors.
The Isenheim Altarpiece has two sets of wings, displaying three configurations.
Here is the first configuration, with the wings closed, displaying The Crucifixion of Christ, framed by a couple of saints.
This is the second configuration with the outer wings opened, featuring the Virgin Mary.
Finally the third configuration with the inner wings opened which has many things, notably saints, demons, desert and things like that.
But, back to the first configuration, featuring the Crucifixion. Notice the figure on our right.
I don’t know if can see the figure portrayed, so here is a close-up.
This is the artists’ depiction of John the Baptist. What is John the Baptist doing in this painting? He is pointing to Jesus, to Christ on the cross. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is God’s Messiah, God’s Chosen One who has died in order to reconcile the world to God.
This piece of artwork, the Isenheim Altarpiece, is a wonderful illustration of who John the Baptist was and what he did. This identity and purpose regarding John the Baptist, is a central part of our gospel reading today.
WHO was John the Baptist? At times, we regard John as a long-haired weirdo who had been part of a sect of hermits who lived out in the desert. Yes, John ate bugs. Yes, John looked a little crazy, and he was getting his fellow countrymen to do some crazy things: like preparing for a Messiah by jumping into the river to Awash themselves of their sins.@
However, there is something you have to know about John the Baptist; he was very well known and very popular. When John the Baptist came out of the caves of Qumran, a hermit hideaway in the Israeli desert, he had a message for the nation of Israel which was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
We know from our reading of Scripture that John had developed a large group of followers. He had disciples.
We also know that the disciples of John had taken his message far and wide and there were many situations where early Christian evangelists would move into a community to spread the message of Jesus, and find that the disciples of John had already been there and had established religious communities.
We know that John was a very devout person; he was a person who had an influential prayer life.
We know that John the Baptist also exerted a great political influence upon his homeland.
John the Baptist was no lightweight, in fact, he was a religious heavyweight in the land of Israel, even during the ministry of Jesus.
John was such a major factor in the nation of Israel that people began to wonder WHO John the Baptist REALLY was.
So they begin to ask John about the essence of his identity and you notice from our gospel reading, the tags they were placing on John.
Was John really the Messiah? Was John actually this great person who had been promised for centuries? Was John this great warrior that they had read about in the bible, THE person who would deliver them from oppression, GODS chosen One, GODS anointed one,?
Hey John, are you the Messiah? NOPE.
Or.... was John really the great prophet Elijah? The people of Israel believed that the great prophet Elijah had never died. They believed that Elijah had been taken up to heaven by God, in a chariot of fire. They believed that Elijah would return some day, to deliver them from their troubles and lead them in Gods direction.
Hey John, are you the prophet Elijah? NOPE.
Or.... was John really the prophet who would accompany the Messiah? In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, it predicts that a great prophet would rise up and would be associated with the coming Messiah. Hey John, are you THE prophet? NOPE.
So.... WHO are YOU John?
His response, I am a voice crying in the wilderness.
John is a lone voice, someone standing out in the middle of nowhere, making an announcement. John is simply a messenger, a messenger who does not bring any fame or notoriety to himself, but points to something else.
Amazingly, John casts aside fame and glory and takes on the posture of service and humility. NO.... he is not any of these noteworthy or famous characters, he is someone far different. John is a messenger, John is pointing to someone else. In fact he is so far down the totem pole of importance that he portrays himself in a less than flattering role.
To give them what his station is life is all about, John gives them an illustration. He is in a position of being less than a slave. In fact, a slave would be required to do the humiliating and demeaning jobs like tying shoe laces for their wealthy owners. John does not even see himself on a par with that.
John is the messenger, he points to one who is greater than he, to one who is coming after him. John is not simply a person baptizing and meeting personal religious needs, he is now a pointer, a witness, to the light of God, the word of God at the center of all that exists.
So that is WHO John the baptist was. But what was Johns PURPOSE in life? His purpose was his identity as well, John is the messenger. Johns purpose was to point to Jesus. He points to the one who is coming who is more powerful than he is. Johns purpose was not to grab the headlines, but to tell people that Jesus was coming.
For this reason, John continued to baptize. He told the people that he was baptizing them as a national sign of repentance, but in the act of baptism, he was reminding them that there was more to come. He was reminding them of the coming One. Thats WHO he was, that is WHAT he was here for.
WHO are YOU? WHY are you HERE? What is your identity? For what purpose have you been put on this earth? Those are huge questions, questions that at one time or another, preoccupy our thoughts. They are often questions that people struggle with in this hustle and bustle world. Our identities and our purposes in life often get muddled, or we are overwhelmed with them.
These are cosmic questions; questions for which we don't always have answers.
John the Baptist was confronted with those “cosmic” questions in our gospel reading for today and we learn of his identity and purpose; he is the messenger, pointing to Jesus.
WHO are YOU? WHAT are you HERE for?
What is your identity? For what purpose have you been put on this earth?
Today, we hear from John the Baptist and then later on, we are going to baptize Stella. Both are significant in reminding us of WHO we are, and WHY God created us.
We are reminded that we are witnesses, we are pointers. We are not defined by our jobs, by what we wear, by what we eat; we are defined by whom we belong to.
We are children of God, God's creation, inheritors of eternal life, we belong to God. We are witnesses and pointers, but we do not point alone, we are sons and daughters of God, who live in relationship with God and with each other. We belong to a group of people, to a fellowship, a church, who together, points to the coming One.
With the promise of eternal life, the gift of heaven, with our futures secure, we are freed to go out into the world, to be messengers, pointers.
We are here to point to something other than ourselves. We are here to point to the coming One, we are here to point to Jesus. When we worship, when we serve, when we tell others the good news, our religious story, we are pointing to Jesus. When we baptize, we point to Jesus. We are witnesses to the light and as we let our lights shine, we give praise and glory to God and we serve and help as individuals, and as a group of believers.
As we point to Jesus, the life, the forgiveness, the future that is ours in baptism, is given to others. We are truly blessed, to be messengers, pointers, giving witness to Jesus.
Mark 1: 1-8
Have you ever heard the expression, “Our word for today is…..?” Regardless of where you might have heard the expression, the thought is to highlight a word which may capture the theme or the essence of the day.
As I consider today’s Scripture readings, “our word for today is….. WILDERNESS.”
….or you could say, “DESERT.”
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As was written by the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"
So begins our introduction to John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, the one who was to introduce us to the coming one, the one who would come with the Holy Spirit and fire. John does all of this from…. the WILDERNESS. Some biblical translations call it the DESERT.
There are few wilderness places on the face of this earth more INHOSPITABLE to life, than a desert. Those of us who live in lush and accommodating places like “Rainy Haney,” are still aware of the harsh and mysterious desert and we probably all claim to know something about the desert.
I THOUGHT I knew something about deserts. Many years ago while our family was vacationing in the Okanagan, we visited an interpretive center on the desert, near Osoyoos. I had never contemplated the fact that there is indeed a stretch of desert, from Osoyoos, on up through the Okanagan. One came to realize just how harsh and inhospitable the desert can be.
Yet.... as harsh as it looks, there is still LIFE. You learn about the vegetation and how it lives and gives life to its environment. You learn there are animals that actually co-exist in the desert. As you bend down and turn over rocks, you discover life underneath. The desert is a SURPRISE, there is LIFE in the desert.
There is LIFE in the desert. John the baptist knew that and so did all those who went out to meet him. There IS life in the desert. There is life, because the desert, the wilderness, has meaning.
The desert, the wilderness was a place of rich imagery and meaning for the Israelites. The desert was a place of wandering and a place of desolation, yet the desert was also the place where God was experienced, where Godly living occurred and the desert was the means by which God would deliver Gods people.
The stories and imagery of the Israelites was vast. Of course, the greatest story of Israel was the Exodus, and the wandering in the wilderness, after Moses led them from slavery in Egypt.
Moses, had to encounter God, in order to be sent by God. Where did Moses encounter God? He experienced God in the desert, the wilderness of Sinai, as he stood before the burning bush.
Elijah, one of the great prophets of Israel, delivered Gods sobering messages to King Ahab, who promptly threatened to kill Elijah. Elijah immediately fled into... the desert, where he was fed by ravens and eventually fed by the widow of Zarapheth.
The people of Israel structured some of their national festivals around the desert. . Radical groups like the Rechabites and Nazarites sought to live in wilderness fashion either permanently or at least temporarily.
The desert was the means by which Israel would again be cleansed and restored. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, the desert, the wilderness, is viewed as the means by which the exiles from Babylon will be sanctified, or made holy, for return to the Holy Land.
The exiles in Babylon, heard the voice of Isaiah say to them,
"Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
The desert is a SURPRISE; there is LIFE in the desert. And that life gives them hope. The people in exile hear that,
"Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
God will give them life in the desert. God will feed God’s flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs in God’s arms, and carry them in God’s bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
There is life in the desert, and such imagery gives hope.
So John the Baptist carries on with that very important imagery. Where does John the Baptist come from? Biblical scholars think that John was a member of the Essenes, a community of hermits that lived in the wilderness, the desert.
What did John do? He stood in the desert and proclaimed his message, because the people of Israel UNDERSTOOD the location.
John the baptist stood in the desert and proclaimed his message and the people came OUT to him because they knew what that meant. In the midst of their trials and tribulations, in the midst of their oppression and persecution, in the midst of their own suffering and desert-like experience, they recognized that their salvation was coming, out of the desert.
Salvation was coming out of the desert, for in the midst of that dry and arid location, God was moving and acting. Once again, God was acting, as God had always done, using the desert as a location to begin Gods work of salvation. From the desert they heard that God was sending a powerful one, who would bring salvation to Gods people.
The desert, the wilderness, is a SURPRISE; there is LIFE in the desert.
There IS life in the desert, for that is where God lives and acts. Even in OUR deserts.
This season of Advent, BEFORE the Christmas season, we return to the desert, the wilderness. We remember the desert and Gods saving acts in the desert. We remember the stories of people like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and even Jesus and we remember how they lived through their desert experiences, walking out of the desert, saved, redeemed and vindicated by God.
This season of Advent, we remember our OWN deserts. We consider our own desert experiences, whether they be desert experiences of health, job, relationships, suffering, death, doubt and faith. We may be sitting in the midst of our own desert, wondering if we have been abandoned and forsaken, left to wither in the arid heat.
Yet the message for us today, the message of John the Baptist for US, today, is that there is LIFE in the desert. God is in the desert with us, God meets us in the desert.
In the midst of our own deserts, God reminds us of the coming of salvation, the coming of Jesus.
Jesus IS on the way.
Yesterday I had the privilege of officiating at a burial for a family that had lost their father; he was only 63 years old. In the midst of their struggles, their wilderness, I had the joy or reading them the Christmas gospel.
In this Advent, in their wilderness, came the message that the Christ child will come to us again. The birth of Jesus will be celebrated again, to remind us that God gives the gift of eternal life, which I trust gave them hope as they buried their loved one.
The birth of Jesus also reminded them that God still walks with them in their wilderness experience. Very early in our gathering, they related ways in which they felt God was walking with them and giving them strength in their wilderness.
God is in the wilderness, giving energy and faith and hope and life. The desert, the wilderness, is a SURPRISE; there is LIFE in the desert.
This past Friday, a group of us were serving at the street ministry. Every 4 weeks we gather downtown and staff the Salvation Army Crisis response vehicle. We serve the soup, coffee and sandwiches provided by the Salvation Army. To that we add more sandwiches, sweets, clothing, toiletries, blankets and bananas.
Coming to the park to receive these mercies, are a vast array of people, all of whom are struggling in one way or another. Talk about your desert/wilderness experience!
Yet, in the midst of the desert, God is there. There is still LIFE. Our team greets them and serves them, doling out the things they need, as well as a smile, love and acceptance....
....and hope. God is in the wilderness, giving energy and faith and hope and life
Sometimes you wonder if all of that is enough. Can any of these few things bring life? It can, because God promises to be in the midst of the wilderness.. God meets us in the desert in order that we might receive life. God sends Gods people out into the desert, to give life.
There is life in the desert this Advent. We proclaim through our words and deeds that there is one who is coming to this world, who is more powerful than any force we have yet seen or imagined. He is again, into the deserts of this world, to give life to all.