Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Blessed Sunday to you all...

As we are home this morning due to God blanketing the earth with snow, I would like to share with you my sermon and a short worship outline for you to follow as a way to give thanks to God this 4th Sunday of Advent.

Call to Worship:
In every heart there lies a Bethlehem, a place where light shines with tender memories, a place where angelic voices are clearer, a place of wonder and awe, delight and calm, a place where the humility of shepherds and the wisdom of Magi embrace. In my heart, I prize my Bethlehem moments and this day I come to Bethlehem, kneeling in wonder. I come to worship with songs of praise.

Jeremiah 33: 14-16: "'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. "'In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.'"

Luke 2:6-7: While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Christmas at the Manger

Rev. Laurie Gates-Ward

December 20, 2009

We have been traveling from the mall to the manger this Christmas season. We have made stops along the way at the mall, the office party and the kitchen table. At the ‘mall’ we were reminded that our ‘presence’ before God and our families is more important than any present we can buy. At the ‘office party’ we were reminded that we are called to respond to God’s invitation to celebrate, to be willing to receive that invitation with joy and appreciation and to share the gifts of Jesus with others. And at the ‘kitchen table’ we were reminded that while our homes may not be perfect Norman Rockwell images, God can dwell in our midst to bring us the kind of joy that the world promises but doesn’t truly understand….a joy that is not about the absence of struggle and sorrow but is about the presence of the Living God.

This day, as we are in our homes, surrounded by God’s beauty all around us, we look to the beauty of the manger. While it may not on the surface seem like a beautiful place, filled with animals and hay, it is in that place that God fulfills God’s promise to the world:

Through todays Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, God had promised the Hebrew people in the midst of their exile that a better day was coming. God promised salvation and a ‘home to dwell’ through the righteousness of the Messiah. It was a promise for all people from the God of all people.

Contrast this with the promises of the ‘retailer’:

Wal-Mart promises us if we buy more we will live better. (Unless, of course, we get trampled to death buying more).

A TV commercial Mom says she wants to see her kids doing the ‘present dance’; hyper children ripping and tearing and prancing around piles and piles of dismembered packages.

Sears proclaims our purchases will fulfill all the ‘dreams’ of others.

A television commercial promises: “Change your TV . .. Change your life.”

God offers to us a change in life but not from big screen TV’s or piles of presents. Just as God promised the Hebrew people salvation from their exiles through the prophet Isaiah, so God promises us salvation from ours.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. 
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. —Isaiah 9:2-4

Where are our dark places? What burdens are we carrying? Perhaps we are dealing with one of the following:

  • illness
  • depression
  • loss of job
  • loss of ability
  • loved one far away
  • broken relationship
  • troubled marriage
  • financial struggles
  • the loss of a loved one

No matter what we face this holiday season, we can be renewed in the promise that God’s light indeed shines in the darkness. It was the promise given to the world in a dark manger over 2000 years ago and it is our promise today.

We have the gift of being able to have hope even in darkness…to have hope in a God who does what God promises to do.

Even when we do not understand the how and why, God is faithful.

Nearly three years ago, as Alan and I drove home from the holidays we made the decision to have another child. Brady was a year old, a wonderfully pleasant child and we wanted him to have a sibling. We prayed together as we drove along, Brady snoozing in his carseat, and felt God telling us it was time to begin the journey towards that sibling. As we prayed, I heard God tell me that we would have a daughter. I had always felt that I would have both a son and a daughter but that day I knew that God was promising that it would come to pass.

What I didn’t know was how hard the journey to our daughter would be. We would have to go through a miscarriage, a difficult pregnancy and the traumatic loss of our daughter, Hope, before we could celebrate our precious Rebecca. It was indeed a dark and painful season for us. But I later reflected:

She did not come as I expected…there was more pain than I ever could have imagined. And yet….God kept God’s promise.

Even though we experienced great pain, God kept the promise of giving us another child, a daughter. God gave us not one but two daughters. One would not be ours to keep in this life but would be a constant reminder of the gift of life; the other would be our sweet Rebecca who fills our lives with joy every day. There was much pain en route to Rebecca, but God was faithful to carry us through. This year I knew how faithful God had been when I heard the song All is Well by Michael W. Smith and I as heard the words “All is well, all is well, lift up your voice and sing” I was truly able to sing. In spite of the difficult journey we have faced the last two years, God has overcome so much of the pain of that journey and is allowing us to sing “all is well.”

I suspect that Mary experienced a lot of pain en route to that manger. When the angel told this very young woman that she was pregnant with the Son of God, the Messiah, she no doubt experienced fear. She had risked rejection from Joseph when she told him what God was doing in her most unusual pregnancy. Even after Joseph had accepted what God was giving to him and to Mary, they received news that they would be traveling miles to Bethlehem for the census. This journey was long and they must have felt overwhelmed as they traveled, Mary very close to delivery. When the arrived in Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay and Mary had begun her labor. There they were, homeless and about to become first time parents. It was anything but a simple journey for them. But God kept God’s promise and I believe that they too felt that "all is well" as they held the Son of God in their arms that night in the manger. Listen to these words from the Prophet Micah:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days. Therefore Israel shall be abandoned until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth. —Micah 5:2-3

What do you and I have to overcome to approach the manger this year? Do we have to get beyond the ‘mall’ promises of presents and bows? Perhaps we have to stop rejecting the invitations God is giving us to ‘join the party’ due to our own fears or insecurities. Maybe we need to put aside childish notions of the ‘perfect Christmas table’ with the ‘perfect family’ that never seems to show up come Christmas Day (or any other).

The truth is God is here with you and I in all of our joys and our sorrows. God is here in the midst of our struggles and triumphs. God is here in the bright beautiful moments and in the ‘dirty, dingy’ ones.

The God who came to earth into a small, humble manger comes into our lives and offers the promise of peace, a peace that passes all understanding; a peace that speaks to us saying: “All is well, all is well, yes all is well.” Let us all come to the manger this Christmas week and let that peace infuse our hearts and spirits in a deep way and allow the Christ Child to dwell within us.

In the peace of the Christ, Amen.

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