The Magic of Christmas is Gone – when a child dies

*Note: On December 16th, a 16th month old girl was killed in a car accident in our community. On December 21st, our congregation held the funeral. 

HolyInnocents-Atlanta-monkimage.php_Matthew 2:13–23

Today the magic is over. The real Holiday began on Boxing Day as thousands, even millions of people across Canada spent their time worshiping at the altars of Wal-Mart, Zellers, The Bay, Sears and more.

All that magic at Christmas, is as easily returned as a faulty watch or an unwanted pair of socks. Boxing Day, or Week, or whatever the tag line is, is a sobering reminder about how quickly the world forgets Christmas and moves on to more important things.

And the reality is, being out shopping seems a lot more normal than what we are doing here. In fact, we haven’t done anything in step with the rest of the world for quite a few weeks now.

All throughout December we decorated with blue instead of reds and green. We sang Advent hymns instead of Christmas carols. And on The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, we listened and watched as Christ was born in hotel room and visited by rejoicing Shepherds in the middle of the night. On Christmas morning, we sat down at a different meal, not turkey and mashed potatoes, but bread and wine, body and blood.

And this past week, when all the newspaper flyers and radio stations were telling us that we should be at the stores to get the big deals, we are here. We are here, listening and watching as the Holy Family escapes from real danger, and as all the other children in Bethlehem are massacred. The magic of Christmas is gone indeed.

The story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents does not seem like an appropriate Christmas story. Or at least is isn’t a story that you can buy, wrap up and then return on boxing day. However, it does follow the real Christmas story right in step. Last Sunday, Joseph saved Mary by choosing not to stone her when he found out she was pregnant. During the week, the two traveled a long and rocky road to Bethlehem full of thieves and other perils only to then give birth in the place where animals are kept. And now, as the paranoid King Herod orders the murder of babies under the age of 2, Jesus, Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt. The drummer boy, and the reindeer, and a tree adorned with lights and tinsel are not, and never have been, a part of this story.

Side by side, Boxing week, and this scene in Jesus’ life show us a darker side of the holiday. They show us the side of greed and fear, sides of cruelty and despair. They suck all the Christmas magic out of us, and leave us empty once more. The Joy of Christmas was supposed to last a year, but it has barely stayed with us a few days.

The story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, of all the toddlers and babies in Bethlehem,  is not an easy story to hear. It is especially poignant this year as we had to burry an infant in our community. Our hearts ache hearing about the death of children, we know, somewhere deep inside of us, that this is unbearably sad. There is no need to compare it to the tragedies of human history that have followed since King Herod gave the order. We know what the slaughter of children was like for that town of Bethlehem, because it has not stopped. Children die each day, all over the world, of hunger, war, disease and poverty. This is not just Bethlehem or Selkirk in grief and mourning, it is a whole world. A world now even more desperate for a Messiah. Jeremiah speaks of grief for us all:

A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jeremiah’s words first expressed the grief of his people, the mothers of Israel, as they wept for their children who had been taken away to exile in Babylon. Then people of Bethlehem would have know the book of Jeremiah, and the story of the exile. But now they carry new meaning as they are stamped again to the hearts of the mothers of Bethlehem. And we know the stories of exile and the story of the Holy Innocents, but this year they carry new meaning as they are stamped upon our hearts. Tragedy upon tragedy. Heartbreak upon Heartbreak.

The darkness, that the Messiah was supposed to shine light into, appears to have returned.

Yet….

Yet….

Yet… Jeremiah’s words do not go unheard. The weeping of Rachel and of all the mothers of Israel is not ignored. God speaks to this suffering. God speaks to the people that Jeremiah first wrote to, God speaks to the mothers of Bethlehem and God speaks to us, to all who know tragedy, pain and loss. We hear the words of Jeremiah applied to massacre of the Holy Innocents, and applied to our tragedy. But Jeremiah doesn’t end with tragedy. Matthew only quotes tragedy, but the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem would have know what follows in the book of Jeremiah. And today, we hear this promise again:

Thus says the Lord:

Keep your voice from weeping,

and your eyes from tears;

for there is a reward for your work,

says the Lord:

they shall come back from the land of the enemy;

17 there is hope for your future,

says the Lord:

your children shall come back to their own country.

17 there is hope for your future,

says the Lord:

   your children shall come back to their own country.

God has not forgotten the cries of his people, and God’s messiah, Christ has come into the world for a purpose.

The newborn Messiah does not “escape” to Egypt. Instead, the Messiah travels the path of his people. The Messiah goes down the roads that the Israelites have traveled, so that God knows their suffering.

Just as the nation of Israel fled from Pharaoh in the Exodus, so too will the Messiah follow their path to Egypt and then back to the promised land.

And just as the exiles of Jeremiah’s day returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, to the holy city, the Messiah is also on his way to Jerusalem.  Egypt and Babylon are just the beginning of the Messiah’s journey. Jesus the Messiah is preparing to take on all the suffering of his people.

As the Messiah escapes to Egypt it is really only a delay of King Herod’s order for death.  Make no mistake, the destination of Messiah, from the moment he was laid in the manger, and was worshipped by shepherds and magi, is the cross. Christ the Messiah has been on his to the land of the dead this whole time.

And surprisingly, this is the hope, this is the promise that the Lord speaks to the people of Israel. This is the promise that is beneath the star, that is born into the stable, that is a little baby in Mary’s arms. The promise that is not just a baby, but a baby who will die. But not just die, but who will rise again. But who will not just rise again, but who will bring us back from the land of the enemy, who will call us to rise from our graves too…

There will be a lot of Christmas promises that are returned and exchanged for something else this week. There will be a lot of greed and darkness, that quickly returns into the world after what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. And beyond our shopping malls and box stores, there will still be guns fired, hungry children, disaster, epidemic and suffering.

And it is in to this troubled world that God come to us… God comes to us as a baby shining light into our darkness and bringing the one Christmas promise that cannot be returned or exchanged.

17 there is hope for your future, 

says the Lord:

   your children shall come back to their own country.

Christ, the Baby Messiah, born in stable, sleeping in a stable manger, has come into our world, to bring us out of the land of the enemy. To pull us from the chaos of the shopping malls, from the despair of grief and loss, from tombs where we do not belong. And Christ shall bring us back to our home, back to the love God.

This is is the promise of Christ’s coming. This is the hope that the angels proclaimed. This is the Good News of great joy that was given to the Shepherds, and that has been passed on to us this day.

Amen

 

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A Story for Christmas – Part 2

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Hall Xmas crop_0_0Marlena thought about how she had wound up here. She, her husband Jim,  and her kids, David and Lizzie, were waking up in a road-side motor inn. They had been snowed in the day before when a storm had hit. They had been driving across the wintery prairies, towards her parent’s house in the next province over. Her parents were getting older and no longer able to make the trip to them for Christmas, so Marlena decided to bring Christmas to her parents. This had caused undue stress. She had been working furiously hard ahead of time. Buying presents, baking goodies, she even had the groceries for Christmas dinner in the middle seat of the van, between her and the kids. Marlena was full of anxiety this Christmas. She wanted everything to be perfect, she wanted everyone to have a wonderful time. So far there had been more grumpy moods and fights than wonderful times.

Last night they had experienced something incredible. The hotel was full of stranded travellers, and Jim and Marlena invited a young couple, Jesse and Miriam, to share their room with them because there were no vacancy. Miriam had been very pregnant and went into labour. She gave birth in the middle of night, to a baby boy, Christopher. The EMTs, led by John Shepherd, had finally made it to the hotel, but baby and mom were fine and recovering well, so they stayed at the hotel instead of braving the snowy roads to the hospital. That had been last night.

By mid-morning, David and Lizzie, Marlena and Jim’s kids, were up and as restless as ever. They were fighting again, Jim was disengaged like he had been all month. The wonder and joy of last night, had faded only to be replaced by the frazzled feeling Marlena had been experiencing all month. She was snapping at her kids ageing they misbehaved, and she had threatened to take away Christmas 3 times this morning, because it was the only thing that got them to behave.

Marlena, Jim, David and Lizzie moped around the hotel all morning, and by lunch they found themselves in the dining rooms, grumpily waiting for the storm to end. As the other hotel guests waited out the storm, they began to congregate in the dinning room too. However, the kitchen staff had long gone home to spend Christmas with their families. There were several tired and hungry travellers munching on chocolate bars and soup crackers from the vending machine. Many kids were running around wild, while parents sat impatiently looking out the window, hoping the storm would let up.

It was when Marlena’s stomach began to growl, that she remembered she had brought groceries for their Christmas trip with her! Before she had really thought it through, she stood up and announced to the whole dinning room,

“I have groceries going to waste in my room. I am going to cook Christmas dinner, you are welcome to eat with us”.

Marlena was shocked with herself. The whole room had gone silent and all she was getting in return was shocked looks from the sullen crowd… after what felt like hours, but was only a few awkward seconds, a voice from the back of the room said, “I will help, I have some food with me too”. And then all of a sudden 8 more people volunteered and off they went to front desk to get permission to use the kitchen. The hotel clerk wasn’t sure about the idea at first, but realizing that he may have a riot of hungry snowed in travellers on his hands, he agreed to allow them use of the kitchen.

The group cooked and baked all afternoon, the hotel’s stranded guests changed from being a group of weary people, to a group with purpose. They were going to make something of this day now, and they were going to do it together.

In a few hours, the dinning room had been transformed into a grand dinning hall. All the tables had been moved into one big table with over 100 chairs. There was homemade wreaths on the walls, and even one of the front lobby shrubs had been made into a Christmas tree, complete with toilet roll angel on top.

The hotel guests were all gathered around the table. David and Lizzie were sitting with Jesse, Miriam and baby Christopher. They were mesmerized by the new born, and they hovered around Miriam wanting to get a closer peak, or to let the newborn baby grab at their fingers.  Jim was floating around the room with a huge grin on his face, he had taken on the role of head waiter and was directing his group of volunteers as to where to place each dish that came out of the kitchen. All around the table, people were laughing, some were singing Christmas carols, others were telling stories of Christmases past. Even the front desk clerk had joined the table and was right in to the celebration.

Finally when the table was covered in food and everyone was ready to eat, Marlena stood up to commence the meal. She thought about praying, but she wasn’t sure if everyone would appreciate that, so instead she made a short speech.

“You never know what to expect from life, all your plans for the holidays can be thrown out the window by a little snow. But at least we won’t starve tonight and at least we won’t be kept from celebrating Christmas. So without further ado, let us..”

“Excuse me” said a voice from somewhere in the crowd. “But where I come from, its customary to read from the Christmas Gospel on Christmas Eve, so if you would permit me”. It was a little old man, and he was wearing a black shirt with a little white square at the front of the collar. Marlena nodded absently and sat down.

It was an old priest who had spoken and he pulled a bible out of his coat pocket and began to read.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

As Marlena listened to the poetic words of the Christmas story as told by John, she looked around the room. As she looked at unfamiliar faces, young and old, singles, couples and families, the familiar words took on new meaning. This Christmas was far from perfect. There was a feast on the table, but it was hardly the traditional Christmas meal. It had almost every kind of food you could imagine from turkey to pizza to curry. Gathered around the table was a group of complete strangers, not the usual family. But there was a Christmas miracle baby, and his parents, there was an inn with no more rooms. There had been guardian angels protecting the travellers, and even an Shepherd come to see the new baby. Marlena could sense that this rag tag group, was together for something bigger than they could imagine. All of them were stuck in a hotel on the side of the road during the holidays. This Christmas was far from perfect, yet it had become something special.

As Marlena saw her kids happy for the first time in weeks, her husband smiling and engaging the world around him, she felt at peace. No… this Christmas was not the perfect one she had imagined and worked so hard for, but neither were they the perfect family, perfect people needed to make Christmas perfect. Christmas was about God becoming flesh and joining with the imperfect. As she scanned the intent faces also listening to the Christmas Gospel, she realized that it was for these imperfect people and it was for imperfect her, that Christ the Lord was born in a manger. And Christ was here in the flesh, in the faces of those sitting around the table with her, family, friends, but mostly strangers, young and old.

The old priest read the last verse of the Gospel reading,

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us”.

When he finished, Marlena, along with many others around the table couldn’t help but say:

Amen.

For Part 1, see here: A Story For Christmas – Part 1

A Story for Christmas – Part 1

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

snowed-inMarlena heard shouts from behind her. She looked in her rearview mirror to asses the situation. Her oldest, David, was reaching across the back seat to his sister Lizzie, threatening to wipe his snot in her hair. David was grinning devilishly while Lizzie screamed in terror. Marlena’s husband Jim was playing with the radio. It was Christmas Eve, and the family was on their was across provinces to Marlena’s parents for Christmas. Marlena had been prepping for weeks, wanting to bring the perfect Christmas to her parents, who could no longer come to them.

“Jim, can you get them to stop it?” snapped Marlena.

“Stop fighting you guys” said a disinterested Jim without looking up.

“Whatever” sighed Marlena to Jim.

“David, Lizzie if you don’t stop fighting right now, there will be no presents for Christmas”.

Marlena hated making that threat, but lately it seemed to be the only thing that got her kids to stop.

“But mom!!!! David…”

“Enough!” shouted Marlena. “If I hear another word, I will turn this car around and we will go back home with NO CHRISTMAS!”.

The kids were instantly silent.

Jim muttered under his breath, “Sounds good to me”.

All this work for the perfect Christmas, had made the family irritable, Marlena most of all. She wanted so much to have a good time with family, but December had been full of fights and stress. As the family continued to drive in silence, the storm came upon Marlena’s family very suddenly. The dull morning sky had all of a sudden turned white with falling snow. Marlena’s anxiety shifted from being about her fighting children, to simply making it to the next town.

At noon, they pulled in at a roadside hotel, there were already many cars there and the minivan barely made it through the snow to one of few remaining parking spots. They trudged into the lobby and waited to get a room. Jim did the booking while Marlena phoned her parents.

“We won’t make it for Christmas” Marlena nearly sobbed into the phone.

But her parents didn’t seem too upset. They had been invited to the neighbours and they wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Eve. Marlena was devastated… she had worked so hard and now none of that work mattered, Christmas was ruined for everyone.

Jim had managed to book the final room in the hotel… actually it was the executive suite, but he had gotten it for the same price as the other rooms. The hotel clerk was feeling in the Christmas spirit.

When they got to their room, the kids squealed with delight as they leapt onto the beds and started jumping. Jim and Marlena dropped their bags and went to unpack the rest of the van. As they made their way through the hotel lobby, their could hear the clerk telling someone that there were no more rooms. It was a young couple and they looked defeated… “Maybe you can make it to the next town” the clerk offered, trying to be helpful. Marlena knew they wouldn’t make it out of the parking lot. She approached the couple and offered to share their room. There were two beds and a pullout couch in the executive suite, it would be crowded but they could all fit. Jim was looking skeptical, but eventually he shrugged and went back out to the minivan. Marlena showed the couple to the room, and offered them a bed. They introduced themselves as Jesse and Miriam, They were so grateful and polite, while Marlena was embarrassed by her kids who hadn’t stopped jumping on the bed. The couple offered to pay for half the room, but Marlena refused their money.

“The hotel gave us the room for the price of a regular one”, she said. “Let this be our present to you”.

As Marlena, helped them with their things, Miriam took off her heavy parka to reveal that she was pregnant. Very pregnant.

“How far along are you?” Marlena asked.

“I am due next week,” Miriam answered.

The two families spent the afternoon settling into their room.

As the group scrounged for supper at the vending machines, since the hotel kitchen was closed, they sat in the lobby and chatted about their lives, while the kids bounced off the walls. Jesse was a contractor building houses, they had been living away from home, but they were on their way back to have the baby.

The snow had not let up, and the cars in the lot were covered in snow. Afternoon turned into Christmas Evening. Marlena was staring out the window thinking about the Christmas they should be having, when Miriam grabbed her large belly. Jesse looked over and said, “Must be those false labour contractions, no need to worry”.

But the contractions were real.

A few hours later, Miriam was in bed and in full labour, with Jesse at her side. Jim was on the phone with Emergency services who said they couldn’t get an ambulance out in the storm. Marlena was helping the couple as best she could. Eventually it became clear that the ambulance was not coming, and Miriam was going to have a baby in this hotel. They readied themselves as much as they could, then it was time.

“The Baby is going to come now”. Marlena said “One more push.”

Miriam gritted her teeth and Marlena got into position. With the last push, into Malena’s hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Marlena gave the baby to Miriam, who was exhausted but so happy. Jesse looked stunned. Marlena brought some water and towels to clean and then swaddle the newborn.

“Christopher” Miriam said. “His name is Christopher”. Soon mother and baby were sleeping quietly in the bed.

Jim and Jesse waited in the lobby late into the night, David and Lizzie slept on the couches. Jesse couldn’t believe he was now a father. It was Jim who spied the headlights appearing in the white out. Three big 4x4s rolled up to the front door, trucks with skulls, and flames and hunting gear. Several men poured out of the trucks, they were loud and boisterous. They looked like bikers or hunters, wearing balaclavas and carrying tools. They came to streaming into lobby, they looked like a gang out for mischief.

Jesse moved to the door, Jim could see his body tense. Jim followed, worried there would be a brawl. But the group of men quieted down. One stepped froward,

“I am an EMT the volunteer fire department, we are here for the pregnant woman. My name is John Shepherd.”

Miriam was waiting at the door of her room with the baby, she was grateful for the EMTs and firefighters to check her and the baby over. When John Shepherd and his team did their work and left, Jesse came to Jim and Marlena,

“You have been like guardian angels to us. Thank you, you saved us”. He went to sit with Miriam, the two gazed at their Christmas baby.

Jim and Marlena stood nearby watching the young couple. Jim looked at his wife,

“A full motor inn, a baby born on Christmas, an EMT named Shepherd… this has been and incredible night. This is a special baby.”

Marlena looked at her husband, and she couldn’t help but think of Mary and Joseph. And angel who announced a pregnancy to an unmarried virgin and her fiancee. The promise of a baby who would change the world. A baby just like this one, who could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless his mother kept him warm with her body heat, who could not be fed unless it was his parents who gave him food, who could not be alive unless this unlikely couple worked to keep him so. The story of angels and shepherds had never seemed so real as it did tonight.

“Look at that beautiful child” Marlena whispered as she wrapped her arms around Jim.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair, ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at Jesse and Miriam, they could see Mary and Joseph, looking at Christopher, they could see Jesus. They saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the two families  watched this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced across the sky, they could almost hear voices singing in the sky,

“”Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!”

Amen. 

For Part 2, see here: A Story for Christmas – Part 2

Joseph and Mary shouldn’t have been parents

angel_appears_to_josephMatthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Sermon

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. The trees are up. The church has been adorned with wreaths and lights. And, after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous manger scenes we see this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.

Pope Francis is a Marxist, and all Christians should be too.

“Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”Jesus and Karl Marx

Just a couple of days ago in Canada, Federal Industry Minister James Moore made this statement. And of course, once the public and social media outrage (primarily on twitter) got to be too loud, Moore apologized (for being so foolish as to let his repugnant values show in public).

Also, recently the conservative right in the US (Rush Limbaugh, in particular) have called pope Francis a Marxist for advocating for the poor and speaking out against capitalism. Pope Francis responded by saying he is not a Marxist and Marxist ideology is wrong, instead he is a Christian. 

These two media storms highlight a bigger issue that we are facing and that is economic inequality. And I think Christians could benefit from a little Marxism.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street or the recent fast food workers strike show that the economic inequality created by capitalist policies is not really helping most people get ahead, but instead the majority (the middle class) is falling further and further behind the rich few.

Even here in Canada, I hear intelligent, well-meaning people tell me that capitalism is the best economic system for us. I am only 31 years old, but even I remember a time when the ‘capitalists fat cats’ were more joke than revered social leaders.

So here is the thing about Capitalism –  The majority of us are not capitalists in this economic system. Capitalists have the capital (money) to invest in stock markets, to own means of production, to run the economy.  We are workers, the proletariat, the ones off whom the capitalists earn their riches. Capitalism necessitates that the investors and owners take in the profit margins from the production of their workers. In other words, we must be paid less than we make, produce or earn for our employers. That is who capital is made. That is how capitalist invest in and own things. This is system is unequal from the get go, and most of have drunk the cool-aid thinking that capitalism is fair and balanced system.

Our blind support for capitalism is something that capitalists have convinced us is good for us… Christians included.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, said that the Capitalist promise, that what is good for the Capitalist (increased profits, lower taxes etc…) is also good for the average worker, is a big lie. Sounds like the lie of trickle down economics. The one that Pope Francis is naming.

Pope Francis, you are a Marxist.

Christians should be Marxists too.

Here is something else Karl Marx said:

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”

— Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858

Sounds a lot like another Marxist:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

– Jesus, Matthew 25:35-40

We have all been told that Marxism is unequivocally bad.  And the examples of Marxism or communism that our world has put into practice haven’t been any better than capitalism for making people’s lives better. They have been pretty awful actually.  And I am not saying that we should switch to communism.

But unlike Capitalism, which is a system that is designed to be concerned with and favour those on the top, Marxist thought turns towards the poor and marginalized. Marx’s concern for society or community, was above his concern for the individual. That concern for the poor sounds a lot like that Jesus guy.  Marxism suggests an alternative to capitalism: socialism, perhaps leading to communism.

But this where Marxism and Jesus diverge.

Jesus points out that there is no system that will work perfectly.

“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

– Jesus, Matthew 26:11

Jesus didn’t say you will have the poor until you institute a capitalist, mixed-market, socialist, or communist economic system. He said always.

And this is where Pope Francis is calling us to turn our concern. Christians should not be about one system or another, we shouldn’t be advocating one political or economic system over others. But like Marx, our concern should be for the least of these, for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized and the weak of the world. Those who are on the bottom and those who are losing ground. Not only is it our government’s job to feed our neighbour’s children, it is our duty and moral obligation.

And as Christians whose attention is turned to the poor, who like Jesus, like Pope Francis, even like Karl Marx,  we who strive for a better world need to balance our concern and work with a confession.

We aren’t going to solve the problem. Our systems, our economies, our politics will not find the solution to starving children. Marxists, nor Capitalists, will find the solution. Human beings will not and cannot find the solution. Every system we create results in someone ending up at the bottom, ending up in the margins.

And that is why as people of faith we turn the One who redeems our failures, who welcomed children when the disciples would not, who promises a new creation, a new system – not of our making, but of God’s.

And in Pope Francis, in food for our neighbour’s children, in small acts of kindness and mercy that go unnoticed each day, we see a glimpse of that New Creation breaking in here all around us – and still yet to come.

What do you think? Are you a closet Marxist? Share in comments or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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Is Jesus the Messiah?

Is Jesus really the Messiah?

prison_responseMatthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Sermon

Each year, sometime in the week before the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Father Angelo would call Bill with the same question. “Are we on for this Sunday?” he would ask. Bill always said yes. Every 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo would go together after worship to visit the grave of Bill’s wife Harriet. Then the two would go and have a meal at her favourite Restaurant. Father Angelo had asked a few years ago if Bill wanted to meet on the actual date of Harriet’s death, but Bill insisted that Harriet would have rather marked time by the church calendar, and so the 3rd Sunday in Advent – Joy Sunday – the day Harriet died became their day to remember her.

(Pause)

Today, we are officially past the half way mark of Advent, we are soon done 3 Sundays, with only 1 to go. We call this Sunday Guadete Sunday, Latin for Joy, as reminder of the hastening coming of Jesus, both at Christmas and in the second coming. Joy Sunday can almost be seen as a mixture of Advent and Christmas. In some churches, the colour of vestments and paraments are changed to pink or rose. A colour halfway between blue or purple and white. You could almost say that our little taste of Christmas today was an appropriate glimpse ahead,  even in the middle of our Advent waiting and watching.

Yet, despite the “Joy” of the day, the story of John the Baptist is not exactly joyful. We are brought back down to Advent reality of watching and wating. John the Baptist is languishing in prison… the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see the show last week as John preached in the wilderness, along with King Herod, have decided that John is too much of a threat to their power.

John sends word through his followers to Jesus. He wants to know if it was worth it. The mighty prophet is losing his faith. This really is an Advent bummer.

“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” John asks Jesus.

We heard John’s bold and dramatic preaching last week. The fiery prophet was foretelling the coming of a mighty Messiah. A Messiah who was going to come and burn some chaff, to lay an ax to the roots of oppression. John’s Messiah was coming to upend the powerful and lift up the weak. John has high expectations for Messiah. John has a certain vision of what Messiah should look like and what Messiah should do.

Jesus is not what he expected.

A wandering preacher healing a few sick, helping a few poor people, preaching to the hungry crowds and generally staying away from Jerusalem where all the power is – this is not what John was hoping for.

(Pause)

Shortly after Father Angelo started at St. David’s, Harriet got sick. Father Angelo took over from a retired Father Gabe who had spent 35 years – his whole career – at St. David’s. Gabe informed Angelo, that while he was retiring, that he would continue to visit Harriet in the hospital. A few months later, Angelo was sitting in his office late Sunday afternoon, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital asking for Father Gabe… Angelo knew that Gabe was spending Christmas with family in another province. Angelo offered to come, and the nurse sounded grateful.

When Father Angelo came to Harriet’s room, Bill met him at the door. “Where is Father Gabe?” he demanded.

“He is away” said Angelo. “But I am here”.

“Well, we don’t want you” Bill said blocking the doorway. “Father Gabe said he would be here until the end” Bill declared. “He has been our priest for 35 years, and we don’t want a knew one.”

“Are you sure?” said Father Angelo. “The nurse called the church”

“Father Gabe knows what we want, and what we expect in this time. He is the one who should be coming. Thank you, but we don’t need you to stay” Bill was getting agitated.

So Father Angelo turned to leave.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we can carry with us expectations of what Messiah is supposed to be. We want Jesus to be a sweet little baby in December. A conqueror at Easter. A non-intrusive presence a lot of the time. We want a God who will show up when we need help and stay out of the way the rest of the time. We want a Jesus who will fight our battles and be on our side and act when we want him to act.

We imagine things going a certain way, and we can begin to lose hope when they don’t. When we find ourselves in prisons of suffering, isolation, crisis, brokenness… we can begin to question the Messiah, just like John does. We thought Jesus was going to do and be what we expected… but Jesus rarely measures up.

We want a powerful voice to silence our enemies, but Jesus makes the deaf hear.

We want a Jesus to see how good we are, but Jesus gives sight to the blind.

We want a Jesus who will carry our burdens and troubles, but Jesus makes the lame to walk.

We want to never experience suffering, or pain, or discomfort, to never be touched by disease or illness but Jesus cleanses the most diseased of all, the lepers.

We want to rich and blessed, but Jesus bring good news to the poor.

Jesus receives John’s doubt with mercy. Jesus doesn’t scold the prophet for his questions, nor rebukes him for his uncertainty. Jesus praises him instead. John is the prophet who has prepared the way, who has announced the coming of Messiah. Even if it isn’t the Messiah John imagined, it is still Messiah.

And just as Jesus does for John, Jesus receives our lofty expectations for God with grace too. Jesus doesn’t scold us for not getting it. Jesus gathers us into his Body, Jesus prepares a place for us at the table, even when we have imagined something completely different. We are still made to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, bringing about God’s kingdom.

(Pause)

Father Angelo took a few steps and then turned back to Bill.

“I am not who you want, I am not Father Gabe” he said to Bill. “But I have come to bring the one who you need and that is Christ. Father Gabe, nor I, can prevent the end from coming, but we both come in the name of the one who will meet us there.”

Bill didn’t answer, but he stepped aside and let Father Angelo enter the room. Having been at death beds before, Angelo could tell that Harriet was near the end of her life.

Before Angelo could say anything, Harriet looked up to him and said, “Father, you came.”

“Of course” Father Angelo replied.

“Read to me what they heard in church this morning” Harriet asked.

And so Father Angelo read to her the story of John the Baptist, asking if Jesus was the one. When he had finished, Harriet smiled.

“Read the last part again Father” she said. “The part about the messenger”.

Angelo nodded.

“`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”

After that the three sat together until the end.

And every year afterwards,  on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo met to go to grave, and for lunch. And Father Angelo would read the story of John the Baptist, wondering if Jesus was the Messiah.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we wonder if Jesus really is the one. We lose hope, when our expectations are not met. Yet thankfully, Jesus has not come to be what we want, to live up to our expectations for Messiah. Jesus doesn’t conquer our enemies, nor protect us from all harm, nor bless us with riches.

Jesus has come to give us what need. Sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, the lame to walk, the lepers to be cleansed, good news for the poor.

Jesus is the Messiah who is meeting where we are, who is coming into lives that we live, not the lives we hope for. We want a Messiah who will take us away and give us a new world, but Jesus comes here and now, to show us mercy.

“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” It is a question we all ask.

And Jesus, meets our doubts with grace. “I have sent my messenger to you. The Good News has been announced to you. Your way has been prepared. I am the One, who is coming to you, the Messiah.”

Amen.

11 Christmas Eve Sermons that often get preached, but we don’t want to hear

easter-church-coloring-106We have all been there before. It’s Christmas Eve. The church is full. A whole bunch of people who aren’t normally at church on Sunday mornings, are sitting in the pews. Perhaps you are one of them.

Christmas carols have been sung. Maybe there was a pageant with a real live Mary, Joseph and baby. Maybe the sunday school kids are singing a sweetly off-key version of ”Away in a Manger”. There are some prayers and more singing, and someone has read the familiar Christmas story that begins, “In those days a decree went out…”

But before you can hold the candles and sing Silent Night, the pastor is going to ramble on for a while. This is the part you dread. What is the pastor going to say this year?

As a pastor, I am deeply aware that most people in church on Christmas Eve are not there to hear me. It is a weird night for us who preach. I would wager a guess that many Sunday morning folks look forward to sermons, or at least welcome sermons as an important part of worship. But Christmas Eve is different. Churches are uncharacteristically full. Visitors, strangers, unfamiliar faces fill the pews. It feels like the Superbowl of the church year. Your small group of devoted fans have been watching you all year, but now the whole world wants to see the show… well not really the show, they are really there for the commercials.

I have been in the pew more than in the pulpit on Christmas Eve during my life. And I have been subjected to atrocious Christmas sermons. Sermons from good preachers that make me think… “Huh? Did I miss something?” For some reason, Pastors pick strange sub-themes for their Christmas Eve sermons, sub-texts that are really about something else… I call these Junk Food sermons because they are mostly empty calories that don’t really fill us. They are more about the anxiety of the preacher, than about the story of Jesus. Here are 11 of them.

  1. The “come to church” sermon: The pastor tries tell all the visitors that because Jesus was born in a manger, they should try out this church on some other days of year. Churches are usually described as places that are pretty to cool to hang out at, or at the very least not so bad that they should be avoided. Pastors try to be welcoming but can come across as lonely people, in need of some friends.
  2. The “come back to church” sermon: This is related to the last one but it is for all the non-attending kids and grandkids of the regulars. The Pastor stresses the importance of Jesus’ birth, and the commitment that follows. Jesus was born for you, so you better join a committee and give some money. Well, not quite that direct, but there is the awkward sense that we were signed up for a job without our permission.
  3. The “why are you here?” sermon: This is preached by the pastor who has done a few too many “come to church” sermons. It is a passive aggressive lecture for the Christmas Eve crowd. It reminds them that coming to church once a year doesn’t count as being a real church goer, and so we should all feel bad for missing any Sundays at all.
  4. The “Jesus is the reason, so Santa is not” sermon: This one is a bit of a killjoy. The pastor tries to explain the “real story” behind Christmas, by telling us that Santa isn’t real. The War on Christmas folks love this sermon, but everyone else feels a little sheepish for having the wrong kind of Christmas joy, and writing “From Santa” on the present they gave to their kids. (The War on Christmas people wrote “From Jesus”).
  5. The “This God stuff sounds implausible, but you can believe it because we love each other” sermon: This one can get a little esoteric. The pastor talks about virgin births, angels, and magi following stars. It all sounds a little fantastical yet skeptical at the same time. But the pastor assures you that it is okay because the rest of us believe this crazy stuff.
  6. The “magic of Christmas” sermon: This one has all the feelings. And nostalgia. Maybe the Pastor shares a story of a childhood Christmas complete with grandmother’s knitting and Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The only mention of Jesus is an uncomfortable apology for his awkward presence.
  7. The “chicken soup for the… huh?” sermon: This is a storytelling sermon. The Pastor pretends to tell the story from the perspective of the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem, or the inn-keeper’s nagging barmaid wife, or even from the vantage point of a nearby tree. It seems to be somewhat related to the Christmas story, but no one is sure why or how… not even the pastor, apparently.
  8. The “theology lecture” sermon: This one is long, dry and confusing. It has big words like incarnation, eschatology, missio dei. The pastor seems to be really explaining what all this Christmas stuff is about, but you can hear snoring, a teen playing games on an iPhone and  a baby crying the whole time. No one knows when it will end.
  9. The “anti-consumerism, let’s meet at the soup kitchen afterwards” sermon: This one is full of high-minded values, except everyone feels ashamed for having seen a Christmas commercial or accidentally singing along with a Christmas carol on the radio in the previous month. The good news is that the local soup kitchen has been informed that we all are coming to serve dinner after the service.
  10. The “christmas spirit will make you believe” sermon: This one talks a lot about faith, believing, finding the divine, opening our hearts, letting the spirit in. The Pastor says just have faith, but what we are supposed to have faith in is not quite clear. Is it Jesus? Or Santa? Or Christmas Trees? Or Holiday spirit? All seem like valid options.
  11. The “please believe in Jesus, my job depends on it” sermon: This one is from the pastor who is feeling pressure to get more members. We are encouraged to start believing in Jesus, even if it isn’t cool. But Baby Jesus was cool. Oh and join the church, even though it isn’t cool. But our youth worker is cool! This one feels desperate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of great Christmas sermons that have been and will be preached. I know that many of my fellow pastors work hard to proclaim the story of Jesus born into the world for all creation and for us in particular. But I think Christmas can drive pastors, squirrelly, trying to preach a good sermon on the same story year after year. And if you do get one of the sermons above, forgive your pastor. He or she is just trying to do a good job on, maybe, the most pressure filled day of year.

To my colleagues. I don’t have the answers, I am an unrepentant story-teller. But try to keep it simple. Tell the story of God coming into the world. Don’t worry about why we should believe it or getting visitors to come back. Let God do that stuff. Just preach it like the angels:

“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”


Any stories of Christmas sermons you have endured? Are there more to add to the list? Share in the comments or on twitter @ParkerErik or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor

***Thanks again to my wife for contributing. You can follow Courtenay at @ReedmanParker on twitter.***

Other Advent and Christmas posts:

I am at war with Christmas

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela