Monday, December 28, 2015

The Child Who Was God: A Christmas Sermon

It is Christmas once again, which for many of us means visiting family. Perhaps some of you here this evening are visiting with parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles. I know for my part, as a kid, Christmas time always meant visiting my grandmother, Helen Stromberg, whom we called Mom-Mom. 

One thing that I could always count on when visiting Mom-Mom was that there would be plenty of little dishes of candy around her apartment. You see, Mom-Mom had a bit of a sweet tooth.
Once when I was snooping around her apartment looking for treats, I wandered into her bedroom and was stopped in my tracks by a very unusual sight. It was a doll perched on her dresser surrounded by flowers and prayer cards. 
My grandmother kept a lot of dolls around her home, but this one was different. It carried a special religious significance for her as a devout Catholic. It was a statue of the Infant of Prague. How strange it was! 

I don’t mean any offense to those of you who love and collect them, but I have always found dolls to be somewhat creepy. There is something vaguely unsettling about them, with their eerily lifelike eyes staring out of their unflinching porcelain faces. This one seemed especially so. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it was uncanny. 

For a little boy raised in a low-church, Protestant home, unfamiliar with such devotional objects, it even seemed ominous and pagan.  It was of course nothing of the sort, but rather a depiction of the Christ Child. 

I had seen statues of the Christ Child before in Nativity sets, but this one was different. This one was clothed in royal splendor. He wore a crown and a glittering gown of white and gold. This was more than a depiction of an infant, it was a picture of lordship and divinity. The combination seemed incongruous.

It does not seem to us odd to picture Christ, fully grown, seated upon the throne of his glory in kingly splendor. This is our Lord! But can we say the same for the Lord in his infancy, even as we sing this night, “Jesus, Lord at thy birth?” Can we worship a child?

It is easy to love a baby, to feel tenderness, affection, and pity for them when they cry, but what about reverence? Respect? Can you bend the knee to one so helpless? Can you honor above yourself one of these, the smallest and the least? What must the Shepherds have thought to find the great Messiah the angels sang about in so lowly a state?

Here, on Christmas Eve, we are gathered to worship our Lord and God, to praise the creator of heaven and earth, to honor our savior and redeemer, and we find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. What should the fact that God became a child mean for us? I would like to suggest three implications.

First, it means that God has honored and dignified the state of childhood in taking it on himself. Most of us would agree that children are to be cherished and protected, but believe it or not this was not always so. Much of the regard that children receive in our culture is a result of our Christian heritage. In the ancient world, and Roman culture in particular, the strong and the mighty were admired and the weak and the vulnerable were marginalized. Such a culture had little regard for children. We learn from Seneca that children who were weak or abnormal were often drowned at birth. In fact, in the ancient world, children were often sold into slavery, and girls especially  were routinely left to die of exposure.

 Even the disciples seemed to regard children as little more than pests, shooing them away when they gathered around their teacher. Jesus was unusual in the attention and dignity he gave to children. Through his teaching, he started a revolution of compassion in the way that children are treated around the world.

It is alarming to note that as the Christian heritage of our culture erodes, so does much of the regard for children that the Gospel brings. Children are the first casualty of our idolatrous pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and status. They are increasingly seen as a nuisance to be avoided, a distraction from a life dedicated to the pursuit of self-interest. There is an increasingly vocal minority of couples who not only proudly announce their commitment to remain childless, but even refer contemptuously to parents as “breeders.” In contrast, God set aside child rearing as a holy vocation, when at creation he commissioned man and woman to be fruitful and multiply. Indeed he did not see it as beneath his dignity to be born as a child and raised in a family.

Secondly, in becoming a child, not only did God dignify the state of childhood, but he also revealed it to be an image of his own likeness. There is something in the character of childhood that reveals to us what God is like.  Even as a child, Jesus the Son of God, is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being. God is a child.

But some might object, “God may have been a child for a short while, but Christ is now a full grown man.” Yes he is, and yet he is also ever a child. When we worship the babe at Bethlehem, we worship Christ not as he was, but as he is. God the Son is eternal, all times are equally present to him. He will always be and always has been the child in the manger, just as he is always the one nailed to the cross, and the one risen victorious from the dead.

Jesus is always the son of his father’s love, cradled in his everlasting arms, resting is his bosom. Jesus and his Father are united in love, except one looks down in love at his child, and the other looks up with love to his parent.

 Infants can do nothing without their parents, they are helpless without them. Although equal in power and dignity to the Father, Jesus eternally chooses to be the son of the Father.  He says, "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”  

At Christmas time we worship the Son of God who—abandoned to his Father’s will—for our sake became small, helpless, and vulnerable. The one who fashioned us out of the dust condescended to be born of a human mother.

He lived a life of obedience to his earthly parents. He made himself subject even to the rebellious rulers of this world. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” He lived and died for our salvation, to lead us, his brothers and sisters, to his Father’s love.  As George MacDonald writes,

 “When is the child the ideal child in our eyes and to our hearts? Is it not when with gentle hand he takes his father by the beard and turns that father’s face towards his brothers and sisters to kiss?” 

Jesus wants us too to share in his father’s love. He is the one mediator between man and God. 

Finally, because God became a child, we too should become like children. Jesus himself taught us this when taking a child in his arms he said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

If we want to follow Christ, we too must humble ourselves like he did. Look at how the King of Glory humbles himself by being born in a stable and laid in a manger surrounded by animals.  Furthermore, we must abandon any pretense to status or glory and live like babes in the arms of our father. What do children have that they have not received?

This holy night, let us worship and adore the Christ Child. Let us also learn from him, for he is the way, the truth, and the life. It is the poor, the humble, and lowly that are exalted by God, the ones who do the will of their father who are clothed with glory, and the child who receives the crown.

Monday, December 21, 2015

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Micah 5:2-5a

William Cooper writes of a visit to the “rough and hilly country of Otsego” in 1785, the place where now stands our beloved village of Cooperstown. At the time, the place was even less inhabited than Main Street on a cold day in midwinter in the 21st century. He writes, “There existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road,” and yet Cooper envisioned in this place a village that he would soon afterwards establish. Years later, his son, novelist James Fenimore Cooper, said, “We shall have no mushroom city, but there is little doubt that in the course of time…this spot will contain a provincial town of importance.”

Indeed for a community that has seldom numbered more than 2,500 inhabitants, Cooperstown has certainly distinguished itself. Many famous men and women have at one time or another lived within our tiny village, and we have gained fame as the home of many respected institutions such as the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Glimmerglass Opera.

This morning I would like for us to take a look at another “provincial town of importance;” not the village of Cooperstown, but the village of Bethlehem of Judah.

When Joshua names the cities that will be part of the inheritance of the tribe of Judah, Bethlehem doesn’t even get a mention. Neither does Bethlehem get included when Nehemiah mentions the various villages in which the tribe of Judah dwell, and yet the prophet Micah foretold greatness for this provincial settlement,

“But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient of days.”

In these words we have a prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. People don’t normally have a choice about where they will be born or to what family. Unlike some other religions, Christianity does not teach the preexistence of the human soul. We had no existence in heaven or anywhere else before we were conceived in our mother’s womb, but here we have one notable exception. Here we have prophecy of the birth of one who existed “from ancient of days,” or literally from before there were days, before there was time. Who could this be but God himself, the first and the last, who existed from everlasting and called all things into being?

The eternal Son of God himself would be born in Bethlehem, the mighty ruler and deliverer of Israel will come,
“…when she who is in labor has brought forth.”

He chose this tiny village, too small to be numbered among the cities of Judah, to be the place of his advent. He could have been born in any place, in any family, in any family that he chose. He could have been born in Jerusalem or Rome. He could have been born in Manhattan in the 1930’s, or Cooperstown in 2015. Yet he chose to be born in Bethlehem. He could have been born in a palace to a princess, yet he chose to be born in a stable to a poor woman.

What is the significance of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem?

First, Jesus’ humble birth in a humble place is a challenge to the idea that one’s dignity consists in where one is born or who one’s parents are.  It destroys pride of class. If God chose a noble birth, people might suggest that there existed some merit for this tremendous blessing, but God chose to exalt the lowly so that no human being might boast. He chose the poor and despised to show forth the greatness of his grace. Mary herself declares,
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Furthermore, although insignificant in the world’s eyes, Bethlehem was also the birth place of another person of humble state exalted to greatness, King David. When Samuel came to the home of Jesse to anoint the new king of Israel, David was the last to be brought before the prophet. After God rejected all of his much more impressive looking brothers, David was called in from tending the flock. The humble Shepherd boy became Israel’s greatest king, and it was from his line that God promised to bring forth the Messiah.

Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem identifies him as the promised Davidic King, a new and greater David. Jesus is the Son of David, and yet David calls him Lord. He would be born after David, yet his origins are from everlasting. Before even Abraham, Jesus says, “I am.”

It is not so much that Jesus is modeled after the example of David as David is modeled after him. David is a type that points us forward to Jesus.

Just as David was a shepherd, this one will be a shepherd too. Micah writes,
“And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.”

To feed here means more than simply giving food. To feed the flock means being a shepherd and overseer of the flock. It means leading them, restoring the wanderers, healing the wounded, defending the weak, and giving rest to the people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd King promised by the Prophets, who will lead the people into righteousness and blessing.

Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem also offers another clue to how he will feed his flock, and it has to do with the meaning of the name Bethlehem Ephrathah itself, a sign more obscure and less obvious than the others. Bethlehem is Hebrew for, “House of Bread.” Ephrathah is a word that means ‘fruitful’. The village was no doubt given that name because it is situated in one of the most fruitful and fertile areas of the Mediterranean, especially when it comes to producing grain. It is sort of like Kansas, which leads our own nation in agriculture, and is therefore called the breadbasket of the world. So what is the significance of this?

Jesus called himself “The Bread of Life” (We spent most of the summer emphasizing this fact in our scripture readings!) He gives us his own body as bread in the Eucharist.

 When Jesus was born, they wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a Manger, a place for grain, a feedings trough for animals! The image is somewhat disturbing, and isn’t often emphasized in our sentimental Christmas carols, but the tiny baby is pictured as being offered up as food. He is the bread that came down from heaven like the manna given to Israel in the wilderness. This bread is for the life of the world.

Bethlehem, is spiritually, the Bread Basket of the world. It is here that God has acted to save the people of the world, who were starving for truth, from spiritual famine. The human race, in its fallen condition, was like a withered tree that bore no fruit. Jesus taught, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Here in Bethlehem, God produces the fruit of righteousness that he long sought for from the human race. Here in Bethlehem God gives us his own Son, perfect in righteousness, to be our representative and our atonement.
Bethlehem is blessed among all the places of the world because in it was born the Son of God and Savior of the world, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary is blessed among women for being the mother of God. In his birth, Jesus has exalted the poor.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,Descend to us, we pray;Cast out our sin and enter in,Be born in us today.We hear the Christmas angelsThe great glad tidings tell:Oh, come to us, abide with us,Our Lord Emmanuel!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Saint Lucy's Day

Santa Lucia

Night treads with heavy step, Round yard and hearth
Woods brood in darkness now, Sun's gone from earth
But through the darkness comes, With brightness glowing,
Saint of the heavenly light, Our Savior showing

Maiden so sweet and fair, Bright candles in your hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Child of the holy light, Banish the dark of night,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Night now goes great and mute, Silence rules all things
What is that murmuring, As of angel's wings
There on our threshold, White robed and shinning
Comes she with bread to spare, Our need divining 

Darkness shall soon depart, From vale and mountain
She brings good news to us, Light like a fountain
Soon day shall rise anew, Day-star is coming
In Skies of rosy hue, Salvation dawning 

Saint Lucy lived a very long time ago in the early days of the church during the reign of the cruel Roman emperor, Diocletian  She was born in Syracuse, Italy to a very wealthy family. Her mother, Eutychia, was a Christian and she taught Lucy to love Jesus and care for other people especially the poor.
During those days it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Christians would meet secretly in the underground catacombs to worship God. Lucy loved Jesus, and so she would bring food to the Christians who were hiding. She used to wear candles on her head to light her way and keep her hands free to carry her gifts. 

When Lucy was still a young girl, her mother became very sick. Lucy prayed day and night that God would heal her and save her life. She promised that if God would answer her prayer, she would dedicate her whole life to serving him as a nun. God answered her prayer and her mother recovered from her illness. 

There was only one problem. Lucy’s father had already promised her hand in marriage to a rich young man from a very powerful family. Lucy did not want to marry him, because he was not a Christian, besides she already promised God that she would remain a virgin for him. The young man was enraged that Lucy rejected him, and made trouble for her by exposing her as a Christian.
Lucy was arrested and thrown into jail. They threatened to kill her if she didn’t renounce her faith in Jesus. God gave her the courage to stand firm, and she became a Martyr for Christ. When she refused to give up her faith, she was put to death. 
Advent is the time in our year that we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ our heavenly bridegroom. Jesus told a story about ten virgins who were waiting for the bridegroom at a wedding. Five virgins were foolish and took no oil for their lamps. But the other five were wise and kept their lights burning bright when the bridegroom finally arrived. As a wise virgin, Lucy is a symbol for the Church ready for the coming of Christ.
Lucy’s name means, “light.” During a time of great darkness her life shown bright with holiness. Let our lives also be a light in the darkness, a beacon of Christ to the world. May we be ready for him when he comes!
Let us pray,
Loving God, for the salvation of all you gave Jesus Christ as light to a world in darkness: Illumine us, with your daughter Lucy, with the light of Christ, that by the merits of his passion we may be led to eternal life; through the same Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Merriment of God

Zephaniah 3:14-20

I did a bit of research this week. I was curious about how and when the salutation, Merry Christmas, came into popularity. It is a curious and somewhat archaic expression. No one ever says, “Merry Birthday” or “Merry Thanksgiving” and indeed in many places, “Happy Christmas” is the preferred greeting. As it turns out, the earliest recorded use of the phrase is in a letter to Thomas Cromwell from one John Fisher written on December 22nd 1699 which says,
“And this our Lord God send you a Merry Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire.”
Like so much of what we associate with Christmas today, the real popularity of the phrase, begins with Charles Dickens’ classic tale, The Christmas Carol. After Dickens used the expression, it was included, that same year, on the first commercially available Christmas card which read, 
"A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You."
I am going to takes sides on this, and declare that I much prefer Merry Christmas to Happy Christmas. It is a much more exuberant phrase. It suggests, loud jovial laughter and maybe even a bit of mild intoxication. It is celebratory.
As the carols and the greeting cards of the season remind us, joy is at the heart of our Christmas expectation. Joy is in fact a fundamental part of the Christian Faith. It is a commandment.

In our Epistle reading Saint Paul exhorts us,
 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
Today is Gaudete Sunday, which takes its name from the Latin translation of this scripture, "Gaudete in Domino semper!" Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple, but today, as you can see, the Church lightens the mood a bit with Rose colored vestments. The third candle in our Advent wreath is also Rose colored. We rejoice because our Lord is coming soon.

As the weeks pass by my daughter Helen becomes increasingly excited for the arrival of Christmas. She asks me every morning, “Is today Christmas?” And I respond, “No, it’s still Advent, but we are getting close!”

Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Zephaniah is also an exhortation to Joy. He writes,

 “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” 

Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the passage comes with verse seventeen,

“The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”

This is a picture of the merriment of God. If Christianity is a joyful faith, it is because we have a joyful God. Zephaniah depicts God in celebration. It is really quite a spectacle. God shouts in victory like a conquering hero, or to use an analogy more familiar to most of us, like a football player who just scoured the winning touchdown, he sings and dances in the end zone.

What is God so excited about? God is singing for joy over you and your salvation. God has more than just a grudging acceptance of you, he has a passionate delight in your joy and happiness. God rejoices over you with gladness, he celebrates you. You are his prize, his trophy, his great reward.

 Zephaniah is telling us that God will overcome every obstacle, defeat every enemy. He will allow nothing to come between him and his heart’s desire. He is jealous for you. He wants you all to himself, your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. He earnestly desires your love and your worship.

 At this point you may be thinking, “How could God possibly desire us so intensely? After all, he is God! He created us, what could we possibly offer him that he doesn’t already have?

Let me begin by saying, God created us to love and delight in him, but that is not because there was any deficiency in himself. For all Eternity God was complete and satisfied in the perfection of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, in the Holy Spirit, gives all his love to the Son and the son responds, in the same Spirit, with all of his love.

In eternity, the Father gazes upon his Son, who is the perfect reflection of his glory, and he is satisfied. The Son radiates God's own glory and expresses the very character of God (Hebrews 1:3) and the thing that brings God the most happiness, before anything else, is himself, his own glory and honor.

But, you ask, isn’t that awfully vain of God? He sounds like some sort of cosmic narcissist who commands that everyone praise and worship him. This is definitely not a characteristic we find very honorable when we see it in people!

You would be right. This kind of self-aggrandizement is certainly distasteful and sinful in everyone else, but God is in a different category. It is true that God models humility in the self-denial and sacrifice of the Son for the Father, but ultimately for God to have anything less than a total commitment to his own glory and worship would be sinful. God is the highest good, the one most worthy worship, if God were to prefer anyone or anything above his own glory, it would be idolatry!

But there is more, in being committed to his own glory, he is also committed to the happiness and highest good of us, his creatures. We cannot find ultimate joy and happiness in anything less than God. The delight the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for each other, this happiness of God in God, is the source of our own happiness in God. The joy they have in one another is so full that it overflows in the joyful act of creation. We all know what this is like, when we really love someone or something, we want to express it, to share our love with others.

One of the books I love to read with my children is the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones. This is the way she begins the story of Jesus’ birth,
“That night, in amongst the other stars, suddenly a bright new stat appeared. Of all the stars in the dark vaulted heavens, this one shone clearer. It blazed in the night and made the other stars look pale beside it. God put it there when his baby Son was born—to be like a spotlight. Shinning on him. Lighting up the darkness. Showing people the way to him. You see, God was like a new daddy—he couldn’t keep the good news to himself. He’d been waiting all these years for this moment, and now he wanted to tell everyone.” 

Isn’t that beautiful?

The Same pride and love that the Father has for his own son, he has for us.  When God looks at us, he sees us in his Son, clothed in his perfect holiness. This is more than just a smokescreen or a deception, rather, our Baptism assures us that we are living members of Christ.

Before creation, God predestined that we would share in his joy, through Jesus Christ. He created us in his image so that we too might reflect his glory. He set mankind apart, to be the jewel of his creation. He chose us in him and even then he chose to become one of us.

In becoming one of us, God so bound himself to us in Christ, that God’s love for his own son--God's love for God--became inseparable from God’s love for us.

Although, we departed from God’s plan for us, he has redeemed us in Christ. When we sinned against him he forgave us in Christ. When we were oppressed by our sins and enslaved by our habits, he delivered us in Christ. He saved us for the praise of his glory. God can no more deny us than he can deny his own self, his own flesh and blood, his own son. Our joy is his joy. This is what makes Christmas so merry!

“Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”