SPECIAL EDITION: A Poem for Christmas

Bubba has a knack for poetry that he never lets on about all that often; but, Christmas is a good time to do so. I will let him speak for the both of us in the lines below. Ya’ll have a very merry Christmas, ya’ hear?
JPF

CHRISTMAS, 2011
A middle-aged man slumps against the doorpost,
Glancing back over his shoulder at the baby and child
Before turning his gaze skyward, staring blankly at the stars
As he thinks and wonders, “Is it true? Is he the one?”
Sliding down the wall, Joseph settles on his heels,
Keeping balance with the walking stick in his hand,
He remembers his dreams and Mary’s visions
and finds his heart arguing with his head and his tradition.
Against all reason, he believes her. Not the angel, not the dream, but her.
Though he has not known her long, he knows her well,
And has decided that the lie is not within her.
The angel did come. She “knew” no other.
He arises from the ground, and goes in to her.
The cave is dark and damp, warmed and lit by a tiny fire.
Mary looks up from feeding the child
And with her eyes invites him to touch.
Joseph lays his hand upon the boy’s head
And discovers that he is praying.
This child is a gift and I will do my best to care for him and his mother.
I trust you, O Eternal One, to care for all of us.”
By Delmer Chilton

Year B — This First Sunday after Christmas

Commentary for January 1, 2012
Click here for today’s readings  

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 
“My whole being shall exult in my God….” 


Think about what it means for one’s “whole being” to get involved in exultation — most of us are from very word-oriented traditions when it comes to worship. We listen a lot; we sometimes think about what we’re hearing. And — occasionally — we actually do something with what we’ve heard (though we don’t want to be too spontaneous or obvious with our actions.)

Our holiness brothers and sisters may have one up on us here — Shakers, Quakers, Rattlers, Rollers, Pentecostals of all varieties, even “Amen!” Baptists. That’s probably a bit more of “whole body” experience when it comes to exultation.



Of course, there are some quiet ways to involve the whole being, as well. Prayer posturing (in the most positive sense of the word) such as kneeling, standing, or even falling prostrate would certainly qualify. (Not too sure about “Tebowing” here — but, maybe God likes it?) Incense involves a different realm of the sensual; visual elements in worship can help. 


I don’t think Isaiah’s point is necessarily about trying to come up with “the next new thing” in worship in order to attract the masses. But I do think a bit of consideration about stepping away from our potentially over-Reformed, hyper-sensitive aversion to anything “bodily” as part of living out our faith might be in order. Is God the God of the senses as well as of the mind?

Psalm 148
This psalm text has a whole lot of praising going on! The Bible is one of the first texts to promote inter-generational worship. Don’t you just love the image of v.12? ” Young men and women alike, old and young together!”

Galatians 4:4-7
Talk about a “pregnant moment!” God’s timing was “full” — it was “ripe”– when Jesus entered the world as a human. The Christ was “born” to redeem us — actually, so that we could be “adopted” (a different form of birth) as children of God.

Gotta love the opportunity to call God “Daddy” — nothing sexist or exclusionist in this image. “Abba” is a term of endearment, a transliteration of the word spoken (or babbled) by children in cultures around the world. It comes through to us from the Aramaic term for a father…that moment of recognition that occurs with a grin and a stream of “abbababababa” gibberish from the mouth of a baby. Warms the heart, you know…as God’s heart must be warmed by our recognition and calling out for “Abba.”


Luke 2:22-40
Simeon and Anna speak for the “senior generation” concerning this child that has been born. Their words are both wise and warning. This one brings light and glory — but risk, danger and soul-piercing emotion, as well.


Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Text: John 1:1-14; Philippians 2: 6-8
The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” (The Common English Bible)
I don’t attend big league sporting events very often. I take a yearly pilgrimage to Turner Field to see the Braves; otherwise I can count the number of NFL, NHL or NBA games I’ve seen live on both hands without using my thumbs.
But every time I go I find myself a bit overwhelmed by all the stuff that happens that has nothing to do with the game. Noise, lights, noise, food, noise, huge video screens, noise, fan contests. Did I say noise?
The last time I went to something like that I realized how easy it would be to lose track of the main event in the midst of all the loud and gaudy distractions.
And so it is with the Mass of Christ. There are so many loud and flashy and strident voices crying for our attention during this season that we can easily get distracted and lose track of the main event.
There is the commercial push that tries to convince us that the core to happiness is more stuff and that the best Christmas gift ever is the particular piece of stuff being advertised.
And while we all know that isn’t true, we still find ourselves inundated with the commercials and almost against our own wishes and better judgment, we find ourselves buying a lot of stuff to give away to others.
Then there is the noise of standard American secular “Holiday Season.” I kind of like some Christmas songs; “I’ll have a bluuuuuuuuuue Christmas without you,” for example, but few of us want those songs as our public soundtrack from the first day of November until Dec. 25th.
Then there’s the Church related stuff which is intended to help us remember the coming of Christ but sometimes gets in the way too. We can get so carried away with and worried about the Choir cantata and the Children’s Christmas program that we center more on the choral performance and the cuteness of the children than we do on the mystery of God made flesh.
Yes, the main event of the Incarnation can get lost in noise and lights and sentimentality of our celebration. It’s like the crowd at a baseball game getting so involved in doing the wave that they miss an unassisted triple play on the field.
the Word became flesh and tented among us.”(Reynolds Price, Three Gospels)
The core of that main event, that unassisted triple play, that Incarnation we remember and celebrate today, is summarized in those few words;
the Word became flesh and “made his home among us,” “tented among us,” “lived among us,” (NRSV), “moved into the neighborhood” (Eugene Peterson, The Message)
But why? Why did “the Word,” the Christ, the Son of God, do this?
What is this Incarnation all about, and what does it mean for us?
Years ago, in the 1840’s, Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish Christian writer, created a parable to help us understand this. It is called “The King and the Maiden.” (Parables of Kierkegaard, T. Oden, ed.)
Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who was in love with poor peasant girl. She did not know him personally; he saw her from afar and wanted her for his bride.
At first the king thought he would do what kings normally did; he would send for her, announce his attention to marry her, she would accept and be eternally grateful that he had rescued her from her poor village, etc.
Then the King thought;” I do not want her to love me like that. I want a real love,
a real marriage, a real relationship. I want her to love me for me!”
So, the king thought, in order to win his beloved’s hand, he would cover his royalty with a beggar’s cloak and go forth to woo her.
But then he realized that this was a ruse, a trick, and love can only be love if it is completely honest and true. He not only had to appear to be a beggar, he had to really be a beggar.
American writer Phillip Yancey summarizes the conclusion of Kierkegaard’s parable like this:
The king, convinced that he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to DESCEND. He clothed himself as a beggar and approached her cottage incognito, with a worn cloak fluttering loosely about him. It was no mere disguise, but a new identity he took on. He renounced the throne to win her hand. (DIAPPOINTMENT WITH GOD, 1988, p.110)
This is what Christ did. The Word renounced the throne to win the hand of the Bride of Christ; which is the church; which is us.
Philippians 2: 6-8 is a hymn, one of the first Christian hymns, and it is a hymn rejoicing in the Incarnation. Listen;
“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God,
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
This is what we celebrate at Christmas; the love of a God who could have forced our loyalty and obedience through a simple act of the divine will; who could have enticed us to give our worship and admiration through displays of splendor and magnificence; but who instead chose to come and live among us, to crawl into our tent, to move into our neighborhood, to let go of all privilege and power; and come into our midst as one of us, as one of the lowest of the low; a tiny baby, born of peasant parents in a stable with a feeding trough for a bed.
Our God did this so that we would fall in love with the holy,
so that we would see and know God’s love as real,and so that our love for God would be real and not forced.
In the midst of all the noise and lights and distractions of the season,
let us turn our attention to the main event and rejoice with quiet and loving hearts;
the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
To show us the quietly tender love of God.
Amen and amen.

Year B — Christmas Eve/Christmas Day (Nativity of the Lord, Proper 1)

Commentary for December 24/25, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 9:2-7
I always wanted my family to hear from Ed McMahon when I was growing up. You know, the annual Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes? Ed and his crew would show up at your front door with a giant, over-sized check made out to “The Fairless Family” for One Million and no/100Dollars!

That’s what I imagine when I read the line in Isaiah day about “as people exult when dividing plunder.” How thrilled would I have been to divide the “plunder” of an unexpected bonus with my family members? Is that how I feel about the coming of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace?

Psalm 96
I’m interested in the repeated admonition to “ascribe to the Lord” the glory due God’s name. Ascribing something generally means to give credit where credit is due. I like that.

But, of course the original meaning goes even deeper; scribere is “to write,” or even more literally, “to make a mark.” When it comes to praising God for the wonder of creation, of Christ — we need to write it down — “book it,” if you will. Mark this day — this holy day — as the day we give God all the glory for Christmas!

Titus 2:11-14
Paul reminds us, in his words to Titus, that we have been waiting for a blessed hope, a manifestation (an outward demonstration, a materialization of something that has previously only been imagined) of the glory of God. And now, that for which we have been waiting has appeared.  


Salvation is actually here, right in front of us — all around us, actually. Open your eyes, see it, feel it, hear it. Know it to be true to the depths of your soul. Jesus Christ is God, with us!

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)Cue Linus.

The Christmas speech from Charlie Brown’s best bud is indelibly burned in the consciousness of the Peanuts generation; happily, through the magic of DVD’s and Blu-Ray, the immortal moment lives on for new generations, as well.

Have you stopped to consider what a joy it is to continue to tell this story, year after year? We don’t want to let it ever become blase, just another story that we read.

Whether it’s the “terror” of the shepherds at the first sighting of the angels, or the deep pondering of the Holy Mother at all that was happening around her…may we recover some of the mystery and awe of the events described in the gospel in our own hearing and telling.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
 

A few years ago I went down to a retirement center to hear the Choir sing. It was a good show.

They did a very hilarious version of “I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas.”

Do you know the song? A little boy sings about all the mischief he’s been in, and then the chorus goes:

“I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas, ‘cuz I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad”

After I finished laughing, I started thinking and realized that while that line sums up a lot of our thinking about how God works, it’s just not true.


Indeed, it is the exact opposite of the Gospel truth of this night; it is because we “ain’t been nuttin’ but bad” that we have received the one gift we needed, which is Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Not just or primarily us as individuals, but us as the human race, us as humanity.

As the Bible says, God so loved the World, the Cosmos, that he sent his only beloved Son.

No, it’s not that we are individually evil; it’s that the world is in a mess, and can find no way out.


The Christ was born at a time of political and social unrest.

Israel was once again a conquered country, living under the domination of the Romans,
ruled by King Herod, a cruel, cruel man.

When Christ came, there was hunger and social injustice and war raged upon innocents, all in the name of such things as Truth and Justice and National Security.


Then as now, the old values had become skewed and obscured and unrecognizable, and no one knew whom they could trust.

And into such a world God sent the Son.

The message then and the message now is that we are not alone in the midst of the world’s evil,


Though we, collectively,” ain’t been nuttin’ but bad, we’re still gettin’ something for Christmas.”

God has come to us in the midst of our distress. In the middle of our loneliness and despair,

God has sent us a sign of his love.

Into a world filled with hopelessness, God comes to us in the hopeful form of new life and new birth.

Christ came to be a beacon of light in a dark world.

Christ came to show us love in the midst of hatred and strife.

Christ came to bring life in the midst of death.
The cross is a reminder to us that Christ did not come to be cute.

Christ came to preach, teach, heal, suffer and die.

Just as the Cross looms over our altars, the cross hovers over the manger of the Christ Child.

Christ did not come so that we can have parties and give gifts.

Christ did not come, to reward us for being good, but to save us from being bad.
Christ came to show us the love and care of God in the midst of a deadly and dangerous world.
Christ came to show us how to live and how to die.
Christ came to die upon the cross for us, to save us from sin, death and the devil.

When we realize that, we are ready to celebrate with somber joy and reverent jubilation.

“I’m getting’ sum-thin’ for Christmas, even though I been nuttin’ but bad.”
“For unto us a child is born, who is Christ the LORD.”

Amen and amen.

Year B — The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Commentary for December 18, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16


This text turns on a play on the word: “house.” This is one of the few times the pun works just as well in English as it does in Hebrew. David wants to do something for God by building God a house (physical structure). God turns that about by promising to build David a “house,” that is “a family dynasty.” There are two connections in this text to Advent.

1) The obvious connection to Joseph being “of the house and lineage of David,” and all that that language implies in the Gospel stories.

2) More important is the promise of God’s presence. In one way or another, we all are prone to trying to keep God in God’s place, aren’t we? Whether it be between the pages of a black book or inside the restraints of a confessional system, we are not unlike King David in wanting to build a “house of cedar,” where we can keep the divine under control. And God is not having any of it. God reminds Nathan and David that God’s place is where it has always been and always will be; in the midst of God’s people. Advent is the promise that the uncontrollable, uncontainable and unlimited God will once again push through our restrictions and fear to stand in our midst.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26  

Isn’t “forever” a great word? The psalmist uses it three times in those first four verses. Makes me think of that great refrain from Handel’s Messiah, choruses of “forever, forever” rolling and tumbling over each other like a sparkling waterfall. In secular music I think of Randy Travis’ country song, “I’m gonna love you forever and ever, amen.” Yes forever is a lovely word. The Hebrew is ad olam, which “applied to David and his descendants, emphasizes the ever-continued, ever-acting presence of the blessing extended into the “indefinite future.” (Vine’s Dictionary of Biblical Words, p. 72) What is the blessing that goes on forever? God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” God’s gonna love us forever and ever, amen.

Romans 16:25-27 

The revelation of the mystery,” that is best summation of Advent that I know. The mystery is the mystery of life, the mystery of meaning, the mystery of what it all means, the mystery of how we are to behave, the mystery of God and spirituality and life and death. In the coming of the Christ, all is revealed, all is explained. Or so Paul says. Personally, I am still very often quite mystified by the whole thing, but I have to admit that clinging to the love of God in Christ gives me a good anchor to hold on to as I seek to understand the rest of it.
Luke 1:26-38
Two words leap out at me in this text: “favored” and “perplexed.” For good reason is Mary perplexed. First of all, she knows she’s a virgin; how can she be pregnant? Secondly, what sort of “favored” status is it to be pregnant without having had relations with your husband in a culture in which stoning is the proposed punishment for adultery? If I had been Mary, perplexed would have been much too sedate a word to describe my feelings. “Angry and scared out of my wits” would have probably come closer. A bigger mystery to me than the virgin birth is Mary’s reaction to the whole thing. Not just the perplexity and the polite questioning instead of the screaming heebie-jeebies; but the quiet acceptance and obedience in the words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Whether she actually said it or not, Mary lived those words. The question for me is whether or not I am ready to quietly and obediently live into the mystery of whatever God’s steadfast love and faithfulness have in store? For me? Forever? Amen. 
 

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless

I’ve always heard that “it’s good to be the king!”

You get to live in a palace, there are lots of people around to do what you say…they bring you food and wine and entertainment of all sorts. In fact, most everybody in your life is there to do pretty much whatever you want. After all, nobody outranks the king!


And so, we meet King David — the Shepherd Boy/Giant Killer/turned Warrior Prince and King. As Samuel records, David had no more worlds to conquer; God have “given him rest.” All well and good, correct?


As it turns out, the whole “given him rest” thing wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be — and David soon found himself restless. He needed something to do, some plan to conceive, some great deed to achieve. So, he cooked a little project up for himself. He was going to build God a house!


Oh, it would be glorious! David began to imagine the details in all their rich variety. One can almost feel his excitement as he shared his vision with his pastor — otherwise known as the prophet, Nathan. Brother Nathan liked the sound of the idea (remember, who’s going to tell the king, “No, that sounds really stupid?”) He gave David his spiritual imprimatur — “Go, do what you have in mind. The LORD is with you!”


There was only one problem with this awesome undertaking for God. Neither David nor Nathan had stopped long enough to ask God what it was that God wanted them to do. 


So, Nathan gets a wake-up call around midnight one night; God has a message to be delivered to David.


“Do you think that I need you to build me a house? I’ve been doing pretty well for the last thousand years or so, in case you haven’t noticed — I got Moses and your great-great-great grandaddy out of a pretty tight squeeze there in Egypt. I managed to keep your whole straggling lot of ancestors together for forty years in the wilderness. I got them all here to the Promised Land and have been with all of you every step of the way.


“And in all that time, I’ve lived in a tent and a tabernacle and I’ve never, ever asked anybody to build me a house. What makes you think that I need you to build me one, David?


“Remember, I picked you fresh from the sheep shift, young man — I stayed with you, helped you, strengthened you — why, I made you, David! And I’m here to tell you, I didn’t grant you victory over Goliath and Saul and the Philistines and Me-knows-whoever-else just to turn you into a glorified building contractor!


“I have something else in mind — something greater that I have planned for you to do. So, what I need from you is for you to just settle down, take care of the business I have set before you — and get back to being a king who cares for his people. Is that too much for me to ask?”


I would imagine you could have heard the veritable pin drop after God finished that comeuppance with both Nathan and with David.


The gentle correction of God is sometimes not so gentle in our lives. God needed David to understand — as I’m sure God sometimes is trying to get us to understand — that God was building David’s life for a purpose. He was to be the progenitor of the family line that would lead to Joseph and Mary and to the baby in Bethlehem — the baby that was born to be the Savior of the world. 


That’s a pretty awesome assignment!


As we bring the season of Advent to a close and prepare to welcome the Christ anew into our lives, perhaps we can hear the word of the Lord for us in the midst of David’s call:

  • Be careful when you think you have finally arrived; it is often most difficult to live successfully right after our greatest victories have been won. 
  • Telling God what it is that you want to do can be a dangerous proposition. While God often works according to the desires of our hearts — and God certainly understands the ways that we are fearfully and wonderfully made — the basic commitment of our lives remains, “nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”
  • Even preachers get it wrong sometimes! Nathan got ahead of himself, or got a little carried away with the ambition of his most powerful and influential parishioner. Ministers are not perfect (in case you haven’t figured that out) and shouldn’t be expected to be. But, both members and ministers should be people of prayer — and certainly willing to admit it when they are wrong!
  • Whatever God has planned for you, you can trust that it will be better than anything that you may have imagined for yourself.

In his book, The Man God Uses, Dr. Henry Blackaby tells of reading the gospel story of the devoted friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus one day. They wanted Jesus to heal their friend so that he could walk again. And yet, Jesus’ response was, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (see Mark 2:1-12)


Why did Jesus not respond according the wishes/prayers/faith of the friends? They asked for healing; Jesus offered forgiveness. Dr. Blackaby says, “I began meditating on this passage…it was as if God said to me, ‘Henry, these men were asking for one thing but I had so much more to give them.’ If God had healed the man without forgiving his sins, he would have lost out on so much more God had to offer. Jesus not only provided for a physical problem, he provided for the spiritual one as well.


“When I realized this, I began to pray, ‘Lord, if I ever make a request and you have something better in mind for me, please cancel my request.'” (Blackaby, Broadman and Holman Publishing Group, 1999, p. 90)

Lord, at the ending of Advent and at the coming of your Son at Christmas…if we have made requests and you have better things in mind, please cancel our requests.

Amen.