Thursday, December 28, 2017

Sermon: Each Light A Prayer

Isaiah 9:2-7

I was reading a sermon by Timothy Cargal, (yes, pastors listen to and read other pastor’s sermons, how else would we be spiritually fed?) and in it he talks rather humorously about how, “One of the great cultural traditions of modern American Christmas observances is the use of lights. Everything that doesn’t move is decorated with lights. Christmas trees are recognizable by their lights, and indeed as more and more types of trees are used as Christmas trees, the more it is the presence of the lights that identifies them as such. Lights are put around lampposts. We hang lights from the eaves and awnings of our homes, and around windows and doorframes. Lighted fixtures and images are arrayed in front yards, and those that are not self-lighted are bathed in spotlights. Without a moment’s embarrassment at the brazen self-interest, electrical power companies promote contests for the best and most elaborate seasonal displays.” He then goes on to talk about the psychological reasons that we do this during the darkest time of year, when the days are short and the nights are long.

I remember a powerful story told by Roger Robbenolt about his father who feared the darkness in the years before electric lights. It was a symptom of his manic-depression.

During the gloom of December, as long as the kerosene lamps were ablaze he could endure the long nights. But if there was no kerosene his father would become violent and angry from his fear. The year when Roger was nine particularly stands out in his memory. 37 inches of snow had fallen in three weeks, and more was coming. They hadn’t been able to get into town to buy oil or candles and on Christmas Eve – both ran out. Roger’s mother called a mile distant neighbor on the phone, pleading for any extra kerosene they might have.

On those blizzard shrouded days there was little to do. One pastime was rubbernecking (some of you will know what that is, it is when there are 18 families on a party telephone line, each with its own distinguishable ring. Well, even if the call wasn’t for you, you could very carefully lift the phone, cover the mouthpiece and listen in on your neighbor’s conversation.) The neighbor said she didn’t have any extra oil, and the phone call ended.

What happened a while later was a miracle due to people being nosy. As Roger stood by the window, he saw lights like fireflies in the distance, lanterns, seventeen lanterns growing larger as the bearers came nearer. Roger’s father saw the light and cried out, “The lights – look at the lights.”

Roger says, “They came on that Christmas Eve, the light bearers. But they bore more than light. Though jobs were scarce and gardens had dried up and the snow was too deep to care for trap lines, everybody brought something to share. Tilllie Mauldin had come up with the makings of mincemeat pie. Bill Cooley had some ground venison. Gyp Matthews brought corn to pop. Thirty people or more crowded into the tiny living room and kitchen . . . ”

“We sang and laughed and shared far into the night. Ted rolled in our kerosene barrel, and everyone poured half a lantern-full into it. We would not be without light.”[1]

You see there is more to Christmas and lights than just psychology. It is about hope, deepest hope, that reaches beyond our mind into the depths of our souls. Light is spiritual. Isaiah captures it in his writing.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

It isn’t until after he has told us about light that he says:

A child is born to us, a son is given to us.

He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

In the darkest night, Isaiah says, there will be light, spiritual hope, and that hope comes in the form of a child, the Christ.

It isn’t just Isaiah, that realizes that light and Christ are connected. You also hear it in our Christmas carols, this connection between light and the newborn child and the hope he brings into a dark world.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing says, “Hail! the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”

Do you hear what I hear says, “Pray for peace, people everywhere! listen to what I say The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night: He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.”

As humans, we crave hope. We want to see dark times vanish, we want the shadows of evil lifted, we want the lonely midnight hours of the soul to be lightened by the company of angels.  We want to be standing out in the fields by night and see the glory of the Lord shining upon us. We crave hope. And the lights that cover our houses, the lights that cover our trees, the lights that drape our sanctuary represent prayers from the depths of our spirit, prayers to God to bring light, hope-filled light, into our world.

Imagine as you drive home that each light on the houses and trees you pass is a prayer, and some of us really like to pray. But still it is a voice crying out. The owners of the homes, the people putting out the lights may not realize it, they may not be aware that they are praying. But deep in their spirits it is there. The desire for the light to overcome the darkness.

As we light the candles tonight, we are joining those perhaps unknown and unwitting prayers. But we are doing so consciously.

We are aware of the spiritual quest of humanity. We speak quite openly about our hope that comes from this child of God born many years ago. We believe that what the angels sang is possible, that there can be peace on earth, and goodwill among all people, and that this child is part of making that happen. And we lift our lights to heaven praying that it would be so.

Each candle is a prayer. We are bearers of the lanterns of hope, messengers of the everlasting light, who come to bear homage to the child in the manger, who is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace.

[1] Tales of Gletha the Goatlady, Roger Robbenolt (Ave Maria Press, 1993)

Sermon: 12 Hour Pregnancy

Luke 1:26-38

I remember my seminary professor of worship commenting that one of the strangest things about Christmas, is that we don’t read the scripture about the angel appearing to Mary until the last Sunday before Christmas. This year, that timing is particularly strange because -- with today being Christmas Eve, this morning we read about Mary being told by an angel that she is pregnant, and then tonight we will read about her giving birth to Jesus. So in less than 12 hours we will go from Mary hearing about God’s plan, to her being in the very fulfilment of it.

So the timing of the scriptures this year is relatively entertaining. She barely has time to buy maternity clothes before giving birth! Amazingly it is estimated that 1 in 2500 women doesn’t know she’s pregnant until she goes into labor! There are some wild stories out there. So much so that TLC has a television show called I didn’t know I was pregnant.

Of course, we know Mary’s pregnancy didn’t really happen like that. And that is what my seminary professor was trying to remind us.

We really ought to read the passage of the angelic visit 9 months before Christmas – so that we can be part of the slow build up to the birth. Then we can experience the agonizing decision of Joseph as he planned to disband his engagement to Mary, and then changed his mind with the help of a dream. We can enjoy the days, perhaps weeks and months that Mary spent living with her aunt Elizabeth who was also pregnant. We can wonder with all of them, and ponder with them what God’s intentions are for this child who is developing and growing in Mary.

Then as the day nears, and we are in the last month, we can experience the frustration they must have felt in knowing that they would have to travel for a census. Yes, it would take longer than our time between services for  Mary and Joseph to travel by foot or by slow footed donkey (if you believe tradition) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It’s a trip that takes 2 hours and 10 minutes by car according to Google maps, but for a pregnant woman walking or riding would take 4 to 7 days. And all of that not knowing if the baby would be born along the way, or wait until they had reached Bethlehem.

My professor was trying to remind us, that this was no easy one day pregnancy. It was an emotional roller coaster, with ups and downs, struggles and difficulties. And we don’t take enough time to consider all that went into the preparations for the birth of Christ. We make it sudden, as if it only took a few days. Imagine if we started reading the angel’s announcement in March, if we agonized with Joseph in April and May, if we visited with Elizabeth and read about the joy of their meeting in June. If we heard about the upcoming census in August, and made travel plans in September and October. And then last week, we had left with them by foot. For some of us, this would be too much Christmas! But the power of it would be a reminder that God’s ways are often slow and deliberate. And that what we read in a few sentences in the bible is God’s work over months, and sometimes years.

Reading this passage so close to Christmas can give us the illusion that God’s answers to the world’s problems are quick, like an order on with delivery by Fed-Ex, absolutely guaranteed to be there the overnight. But God often takes the slow, grow a messiah in a mother’s womb, let him be a helpless babe, grow into a child, mature through being a teenager, wait until he is 30 years old before he goes public, path to salvation.

But, as I was preparing for today, and knowing that we would go from the announcement to the birth in the space of 8 hours, I thought, perhaps there is something for us to learn from hearing the two stories in such a short time, also.

Perhaps there is power in thinking of the birth of Jesus into our world as a sudden and surprising event that we didn’t really have time to prepare for.

Because honestly, that is how it was for most of the world. Mary had time to prepare, but the shepherds in the fields didn’t. Suddenly there were angels singing in a heavenly host around them. And they had to decide right then and there if they were going to go to Bethlehem and see this child who had been born.

Joseph had time to change his mind, but the innkeeper didn’t. He had to decide when the couple came to his door, right then and there if he had space for them.

And sometimes the same thing is very true for each of us. Although we have time to get our decorations out and ready for Christmas, and although we have time to consider and reconsider what gifts we are going to give each of our family members, when it comes to God erupting into our lives it is often a sudden and unexpected thing that we are not ready for.

For example, this has literally happened to me. I have been driving past someone’s house, and I have been nagged by God to stop and go in and see them. As though God is shouting at me, “Now, right now.” Twice I have had that happen and the person has been on their death-bed with family around. They hadn’t called me to tell me. But God had.

Or an accident occurs and you are the car right behind it. So you are the witness, and the first on the scene to try to provide help. You don’t have time to prepare for that. And yet God is calling you to serve in that moment and to use your gifts and talents at that moment to help in any way you can. To be an agent of calm, to summon help, to pray for those involved, to give first aid. Whatever it is, God is calling you to be present.

Or perhaps you are in prayer, and suddenly God is saying to you, “Hey I have a job for you to do. A project for you to give birth to that will bless the word.” God has never put that idea into your mind before, you had never considered it. A change of profession, a move to a new area, starting of an outreach to homeless, or opening a pre-school in the church. But there it is – a calling from God. Suddenly later that day a door opens in your life and the very opportunity that God shared with you in prayer is available, and you simply are not ready. It is too sudden! But you know that you have to decide now, whether you are ready or not.

That’s where Mary becomes a role model for us. She stands there in shock and surprise with an angel standing before her and she says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

She is a role model of listening to God’s surprising news, listening to God’s sudden and unexpected announcement and saying, “Yes.” So for all those moments when God throws us into ministry, into service, when God calls us without warning – she reminds us as unready as we are, we can enter into the whirlwind of God’s call upon our lives. Oh, yes we will wonder what is going to happen next. But before we know it, time whirls by and the next thing we know God’s promises are coming true for us. It is the sudden and surprising that leads to the long range and the life changing.

Yes, there is something for us to learn from this amazing 12 hour pregnancy, it is that when God bursts into your world, say, “Yes” and be prepared for the blessings that follow. What unfolds may take weeks, months or years to come to fruition, but it is the suddenness of God’s call that begins the process. So this morning we celebrate the surprising nature of God’s call – which can come out of nowhere like an angel appearing to us – and we contemplate what it means for us to say, “Yes.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Another Year Is Dawning

Frances Ridley Havergal was an English poet and hymn writer – her best known hymns from our hymn book are Take My Life and Let It Be and Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak. She showed signs of being very intelligent very young, began writing verse at age seven, but was discouraged from rigorous study by delicate health. Yet she still took a year to study music in Germany, was able to speak several modern languages along with biblical Greek and Hebrew, and published many books of hymns. She died too young at 42. (Thanks to the for links to a number of biographies on her!)

In one of her letters to a friend she said this about writing hymns: 'Writing is praying with me, for I never seem to write even a verse by myself, and I feel like a little child writing. You know, a child would look up after every sentence and say, "What am I to say next?" That is just what I do. I ask that at every line He would give me not merely thought and power, but also every word even the very rhyme. Very often I have a most distinct and happy consciousness of direct answers.' (Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Normal Mable, 1951).

All of that is background for what follows – one of her verses written specifically for New Year’s.

Another year is dawning,
Dear Master, let it be,
In working, or in waiting,
Another year with Thee.

Another year of mercies,
Of faithfulness and grace;
Another year of gladness
In the shining of Thy face.

Another year of progress,
Another year of praise,
Another year of proving
Thy presence all the days.

Another year of service,
Of witness of Thy love,
Another year of training
For holier work above.

Another year is dawning,
Dear Master, let it be
On earth, or else in heaven
Another year for Thee.

--Frances Ridley Havergal (1874)

There is much that I like about that hymn, and I pray that you will reflect upon it, and use it in prayer and preparation at the beginning of this new year! By the way she also has a wonderful reflection called “Twelve reasons for attending church on a wet Sunday”, which is worth looking into and reading, but I will save that for next month!

Sermon: Sowing Tears

Psalm 126

I have been listening to Christmas Carols on the radio while driving. I joked with Kristi that every time I get in the car I hear at least one of these three songs: White Christmas, Silver Bells, and Blue Christmas they are so overplayed. So then we took a 10 minute drive to Arby’s for lunch together and what happened – they played White Christmas, and Blue Christmas – but no Silver Bells.

Well, if I were going to play one of those three songs today as part of my sermon, it would be Blue Christmas. You see, one of the realities of Christmas is that it comes with tears. Every Christmas as we gather in the church for Christmas Eve it is a different gathering. There are those who are no longer part of our lives, those that we are separated from by changes in relationship, by moves, or by death – and we deeply miss them. But there are also those that are new in our midst that remind us that there are new joys, new lives, and new relationships and these bring hope and gifts for tomorrow.

This interplay of joy and sorrow is captured well by Psalm 126.

Psalm 126
When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
    it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are overjoyed.
Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
    like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears
    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out,
    crying and carrying their seed,
    come home with joyful shouts,
    carrying bales of grain!

As I read the psalm I was captured by one of its lines. “Lord, let those who plant with tears, reap the harvest of joyful shouts.” And I began to reflect on the image that that created in my mind.

I imagined a person going out to their garden and weeping, with the tears running down their cheeks. And then that person takes those tears and carefully plants them in the ground. Over time the tears sprout into plants and they grow. What they grow into, I am not sure. I guess it is just a time of growing and waiting for the expected vegetables to grow. The plants flower, they are pollenated, and then begins to grow what the gardener wanted. Weeks or perhaps months later the vegetable is ready to pick. In this case, the vegetable is joy. Such joy that you want to shout.

As I reflected on that image I began to wonder how our sadness and tears can grow into joy. How are the two emotions related to one another? When have you seen one transform into the other?

Now I know that the writer of the Psalm may not have meant it to be a picture like the one I created in my mind. I realize that they simply may have watched people planting with tears in their eyes because the times were tough – they were being oppressed and under the power of others. And then later when the harvest was happening the situation was changed and the threat to their lifestyles was gone.

But even when you see the image that way, the emotions are connected. People rejoice because what once was heavy upon them is gone. The sorrow and the joy are still bound together, they are related, and one transforms into the other. And so I decided to ask you – for your wisdom as a group. Because you have been through tough times, I know you have shed tears, and I also know that God has sometimes turned those tears to joy.

The sermon today is not just me sharing my words. You see, I knew that you have sat here and listened to the kids, and heard the Christmas story from them with its message of hope and peace, and you might be ready to do something more interactive. So I am changing my approach today, and asking all of us to contribute our life experience as we talk about three questions. Just three, so don’t be afraid to speak up! I won’t keep us going forever with a thousand questions. We can take our time and answer a little more deeply and get several viewpoints in answer to each. Ready?

Question 1. How are sorrow and joy related?Question 2. How do you see God involved in transforming one into the other?Question 3. What advice do you give to someone who is right now planting tearful seeds?

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom. For those of us who are feeling blue this Christmas, there was some great insight and advice there.

I think the greatest joy of this passage is the promise that our tears can be turned into joyful shouts. It can happen. As Isaiah 61:11 says, “As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.” There is water for the desert, and life in Christ. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sermon: Comfort

Isaiah 40:1-11

When I was looking over the scriptures for today, I said to myself, You know what, I love this passage from Isaiah. I used to preach on it frequently at funerals, but I haven’t in a while. I don’t know why that is, but I haven’t used it in a while. And it is both somber and hopeful. The opening words shout, comfort! Here is comfort! And I thought to myself, after a year like this, that is what we need. We need comfort after a year of hurricanes, we need comfort after a year of mass shootings, we need comfort after a year where our personal lives have been thrown into a tailspin by health problems, or marital troubles, or stresses from work, or unexpected turns of event that we did not want. We need comfort.

“In one of his books writer and philosopher Loren Eiseley tells about the time when he was only a young lad and his father died. His father died a slow death in great bodily torture. Eiseley's mother was deaf. Young Loren alone heard the sounds of his father's agony. This was before the wide application of painkilling drugs. Eiseley said a curious thing happened to him during that very stress filled time. He became so tense that he could no longer bear the ticking of the alarm clock in his own bedroom. He smothered it with a blanket but still he heard it as if it were ticking in his own head. He tried to sleep, but he could not. His distress and loneliness were too great. It was then that help came.’

“His grandmother saw the light burning in his room in the wee hours and came to sit with him. Later when it came time for her to begin her own long journey from which there is no return he touched her hair and knew in those moments that she had saved his sanity. Into that lonely room at midnight she had come, abandoning her own sleep, in order to sit with troubled young Loren. Eiseley never forgot what that meant to him. To know that someone sees and understands. sometimes that is all we need to know in order to make it through a time of crisis.”[1] Well, today’s passage shows that God, like the grandmother sees us in our times of crisis, when the distress of the situation is too great, and God pulls us onto God’s lap and holds us.

I’m not making that up, listen to Isaiah 40, some selected verses.

Comfort, comfort my people! says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice was saying: “Call out!”
And another said, “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up; the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God, coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.

Yes, we need what God is offering in this passage. We need to see God opening up God’s arms wide and saying, “Take comfort my people, I love you. Even if it feels like you are being punished, I love you. I love you like a shepherd cares for the lambs and lifts them onto his lap, the care of one who is powerful and protective over one who is so fragile. Like a grandmother who takes an anxious boy onto her arms and sits with him. I love you.”

The beauty of that word, love, is that it isn’t the kind of love that we think of normally. This word in Hebrew is hesed and it is often translated as loving-kindness.

It is a kind of love that is promised to another, it is a love formed in the bonds of a covenant. It is love that extends to all generations. (Agape Bible Study).

A similar word from the New Testament Greek is agape which might be described as the highest form of love, sometimes translated as unconditional love. It is love which is there for us no matter the time, the place, the situation. Even when times are tough, even when we have wandered away, the love remains. CS Lewis describes it like this: “There are two kinds of love: we love wise and kind and beautiful people because we need them, but we love (or try to love) stupid and disagreeable people because they need us. This second kind is the more divine because that is how God loves us: not because we are lovable but because He is love, not because He needs to receive but He delights to give.” The fact is, not many of us are good at agape. Most of you when you encounter a stupid or disagreeable person don’t want to love the person. But try to love me anyway!

I admit it is hard to love unlovable people. We want to be Krampus to them. Krampus, you say? Krampus is a tradition in Austria and other parts of Europe on December 5th. Krampus is the evil half-goat, half-demon anti-Santa.

Think Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas only weirder. Santa rewards good kids. Krampus gives them coal.[2]. On Krampus night people dress up as this horned, goat man and roam the streets looking for someone to beat with a stick. Oh, and alcohol is involved – no real surprise there.[3] The beatings are generally not harmful and more playful than violent, but hey, who of us doesn’t have someone we want to beat with a stick, right? I made sure that I didn’t share this story until after Krampus Night, which was December 5th had passed, because I didn’t want you all showing up at my doorstep dressed like demons waving sticks at me! I’d have a heart-attack! People even send Krampus cards to each other, with pictures of this demon. This tradition says a lot about us as human beings. Most of us have a hard time loving others unconditionally – we believe that some people don’t deserve love. They deserve being beaten with sticks or given coal. We even have a hard time believing that God could offer them unconditional love.

But Isaiah says, God’s love is the love of a shepherd for a newborn lamb. The shepherd cares not because the lamb is needed, but because that is the nature and role of the shepherd.

God cares for us like that. Or perhaps we might say God’s love is the love of a grandmother for a grandchild. She loves the grandchild simply because the grandchild is hers. It is the love of a saint who loves even the stupid and disagreeable people, because that is what saints do!

This is the God that says, “Comfort, comfort my people!” to us, the God of hesed and the God of agape. God does not want us to weep, to feel like we are grass that has been dried up in the drought of life, flowers that have withered in the heat of troubles. God does not want to send Krampus after us to beat us with sticks. No, God says, your penalty is paid. God wants us to know that God will gather us up into God’s arms and lift us onto God’s lap. To help us silent the ticking of the alarm clocks, and to settle our souls. To wipe the tears from our eyes, as we weep for the hurts of our lives and our world. To tell us that the sorrows of this life: the hurricanes and the shootings, and our personal trials and tribulations are like grass and will wither and fade away, while God, God is eternal. God’s words last forever. God’s strength does not fade, and with a triumphant arm God brings the reward for God’s lambs.

God does all this even though we are temporary in comparison with God’s eternity, even though we are weak in comparison with God’s strength. God’s love is very real. That love is eternal and strong, and will always comfort us. Ah! Thank you, Lord! For we need this so much!

[1] King Duncan, ChristianGlobe Illustrations

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Sermon: Embrace

Isaiah 64:1-9

Every year when December comes, the focus of our church services changes. For much of the year we focus on what it means to lives as followers of Jesus. We focus on the things we do, our roles and our tasks. We look at the foibles of humanity and watch how God works to help us on our way.

But in December we concentrate not on what humanity is doing, nor even how God is striving to shape humanity; instead, we focus on God breaking through, tearing open the heavens and coming into our world. We celebrate that God from time to time is a little less patient with us, and simply bursts into the world to do new things. I like what one commentator said, “God refuses to be held at arm’s length from us.”[1] It makes me think of a few of you when I greet you – if I try to shake your hand you look at me funny and brush it away and give me a hug. God refuses to keep shaking the world’s hand -- God rushes in and gives the world an embrace.

“Allan Nelson is a consultant to business operations throughout the world. Allan Nelson is also a deeply committed Christian.’

“He ofttimes walks a fine line through life as he seeks to live out his Christian faith in the midst of a variety of culture clashes. One such clash for Mr. Nelson took place in 1978 in a visit to Soweto in South Africa. In a profound and exciting way he experienced in this land afar off the collapsing of a circle of innate suspicion and hostility.”

“Mr. Nelson was in South Africa on a business trip to advise American companies as to how they might best respond to pressures to do something positive in this world of apartheid. As a church-going man he determined to go to church somewhere in the city on Sunday morning. Quite intentionally he sought a place to worship in a black South African congregation. He wasn't at all sure he would be welcome in such a congregation. But he knew his scriptures. He knew that in Jesus Christ the barriers that separated people should be broken down. He hoped he would be accepted.”

“Allan was told that there was such a congregation just five blocks from his hotel. As he and a friend whom he invited to go with him walked those five blocks to church he was reminded at each step of the racial barriers that separated the races in South Africa in those days. "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only" signs were everywhere. There was no mingling of the races anywhere. It became more clear to him than ever that white and black in South Africa were divided by huge walls of practiced hatred. Maybe he shouldn't go to a black church after all. Allan began to second guess his decision.”

“But then the church loomed just ahead. He consciously submerged his fears of apartheid and nourished his hopes for a new kind of world where all the baptized are one in Christ Jesus. Allan and his friend arrived early. They simply entered the empty church, found a seat, and waited. Slowly the members of the all black congregation began to file in. No one sat very close to them. Not close at all! In fact when the sanctuary was filled there was a large circle of empty seats that surrounded the two white Americans. Here they were. Two white faces surrounded by a sea of black faces as isolated as an island in the ocean.”

“A lump came to Allan's throat. His fears now drowned out his hopes. Perhaps it was too much to expect that the circle of hatred could collapse even in a Christian church.”

“And then, before the service started, a woman got up and began to sing "Amazing Grace." Allan described her voice as one of the most beautiful he had ever heard. Allan was moved by her singing. It was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that when she started to sing verse two some great impulse from within prompted him to join his tenor voice to her song. They were singing. Just the two of them black and white in harmony.

An old woman from the back of the church came forward and touched him. "Jesus," she said softly. That was the one bond between them.”

“And then Mr. Nelson committed an illegal act. He embraced the woman. They both wept. Suddenly, the circle of emptiness around them collapsed. People shoved up against Allan from every side. His hopes had won out over his fears. There was, indeed, one church, one baptism! Allan Nelson now says that this event changed his life forever. "[2]

That’s December in the church. God gets tired of the separation between heaven and earth and wanders into the midst of our world, and illegally embraces it across the divide.

The power of this embrace is such that it changes the very way we think about the way God works in the world. You see, we might be tempted to think that God is hands-off, distant and seldom involved. We can look at hurricanes and mass shootings, wars and famines, and think that God doesn’t really care.

But then along comes a child who is the very son of God, into our midst and says, let me live this beautiful mess with you and show you a different way. “Jesus” that one word spoken by the woman in South Africa, the one word spoken by God that brings us together. Suddenly we start to see the work of God in every act of compassion, in every hand reaching out to help others.

The passage from Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter.”

I like the potter and clay image. Imagine for a moment that God is the potter of the world, of creation. We are clay. Can a potter shape anything by being hands-off? If the potter refuses to touch the clay, will the clay change shape? No, of course not, it will just remain a spinning lump. But as soon as the hand of the potter reaches out and touches it, moving hands carefully and constantly the piece begins to take shape. December is a reminder that God is very hands on, helping us to see that God is like a potter with hands on the world at every moment as it spins through the day. God is shaping, recreating, and always in contact.

Even more, not only is God in continuous contact with us – once in a while that isn’t enough even for God. Once in a while, God says, “I’m coming into, stepping into the world with you. I will be clay too. I will help remove your imperfections, I will show you what I want you to do and be, I will be clay with you.”

So each year we remind ourselves that God refuses to be held off by a handshake, but reaches out to embrace the world. Christ, the child, who is both human and God, reminds us of this. And even more we remind ourselves that what God has done in the past, God will do again. God will step into human time and history and embrace us.

Michael A. Schmid writes the following words in a song of his called Embrace, the chorus goes like this:

“Embraced by Your mercy, Embraced by Your cross, bringing joy in our sorrow and victory to loss; we embrace Your mission sent forth by Your grace, for it’s Your hand we cling to and Your future we embrace.” That’s what December is about in church, every year!

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, Lectionary Tales For The, by Richard A. Jensen