Archive for December, 2009

Christmas Stories: A Gospel Guys Story

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Christmas Stories: A Gospel Guys Story
(Based loosely on an inspiration by Rev. Bill Salyers)
December 20, 2009
Steve Hammond

“Hey Matthew. Didn’t you leave out some of the details?”

“Not really. I got the important stuff. You know it’s all about Joseph. He was such a good man. You see it right at the beginning when he was trying to find a way to break off the engagement without too much drama, without things being too rough on Mary. But an angel came to him, spoke right to Joseph, and told him it was okay to marry the girl. She hadn’t really been unfaithful. It was all God’s doing. Joseph is such a class guy. And a man of such great faith. He is what the Christmas story is made of.

“He was even willing to make that journey to Bethlehem. I’m not sure why he even wanted to go to such a forsaken place when he knew the baby might end up being born there. Which, of course, he was. And he had everything going fine until Jesus was two or so and those travelers from the East showed up. But I guess it really wasn’t their fault.

“It was a long trip. Once they saw that star they started packing up everything. They had to get their servants together. They each probably took some of their wives and other family members. It must have been quite a caravan that rolled into Jerusalem?

“They didn’t mean to just about ruin it all. They came so close to getting Jesus killed when they let Herod in on things. But Joseph to the rescue again. The angel came to him again and Joseph took Mary and the toddler to Egypt. You see why the story is all about Joseph?”

“Joseph is great. But aren’t you forgetting some details?”

“Like what, Luke?”

“Like Mary. In the story I know, the angel comes to her. She is the one with the great faith. She is willing to do what God called her to do, no matter what, no matter if Joseph did leave her. But the angel came to her, spoke right to Mary, and told her everything was going to be alright. Things would be good between her and Joseph, and the important thing was that she was going to give birth to Jesus and they were going to raise him.

“They went to Bethlehem because they had to. The governor wanted to make a census to help keep order, and every man had to take his family to his home town. Just like the Roman empire. It was Mary who knew what Rome really was. And it was Mary who believed that God was about to bring the mighty down from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. Her baby was going to have something to do with it and she had a front row seat. She told her cousin Elizabeth all about it.

“And maybe your travelers from the East showed up when Jesus was two years old, but what about the angels, the shepherds, the manger?

“Shepherds? Mangers? What are you talking about?”

“Manger, not mangers. The place where Jesus was born.”

“I don’t know anything about a manger. I figured Jesus was born in that house where the travelers from the East finally found him.”

“No. He was born in a manger, all right. Some innkeeper let them stay in his barn.”

“Well, he must have been a good man to think about all the people in the inn like that. Can you imagine the disruption that would have happened in that inn if Mary had given birth there? Screaming all night and then they would have had to clear the whole place out because it would have been ritually unclean. And who knows how long it would have taken to get some priests out there, so they would start using it again. Everybody in the inn was okay and Mary still had a place to give birth. It worked out for everybody.”

“Worked out for everybody? You don’t get it do you? Here is Jesus born in as backwater a place as you can be born, and born in a barn, no less. And who are his first visitors, not those rich guys from the East who finally showed up, but shepherds watching their flocks in the nearby hillsides who went running to see him.”

“Shepherds?”

“Yes, shepherds. Dirty, vulgar, shepherds that I had always been told God could care less for. The folk on the lowest rung of the ladder, living in a town that’s nothing to speak of, get the invitation from the angels and go looking for a baby in a barn. And then they out sang the angels.”

“Hi, guys. What are you talking about.”

“Hey, Mark. I was just trying to fill in some of the details about Jesus being born that Matthew doesn’t seem to know.”

“Why bother? For me, the whole story starts when Jesus gets baptized and starts his ministry. Obviously he was born, but it’s what he did that matters a whole lot more to me. I like getting right to the point.”

“ Oh. Hey John. We were just talking about when Jesus was born. Matthew and I have different takes on the story, and Mark doesn’t even bother. What about you?”

“You are all being pretty short sighted.”

“What?”

“I go way back when I think about Jesus. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’”

“Yeah, we know. We’ve heard you talk all about it. You may like going all philosophical on us, but we need something a bit more down to earth.”

“Well maybe that’s why I talk about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. How much more down to earth can you get than that? That’s all the Christmas story I need.”

“If we are all going to be writing this stuff down, don’t you think we need to come up with something that offers a bit more consistency between the narratives, as someone might one day say.”

“No.”

“I’m fine.”

“Me? I’m not changing anything.”

“So it’s really okay to have these different takes on the Christmas story?”

“Look, we just have to tell the story we know. And that’s the way it’s going to be for everybody who follows Jesus from here on out, anyway.

“I like the stories Matthew and Luke tell. Matthew has always been such a guy’s guy. So it makes sense the stuff about Joseph is what he keys in on. And Matthew is never going to be as radical as Luke, nor be as willing to hear and tell the women’s stories about Jesus as Luke is. It’s a cultural thing. Luke, are you sure you aren’t taking credit for something a woman wrote? Just kidding, kind of.

“All Mark and I are trying to say is that it’s what we do with the stories that matter most, though I doubt Matthew or Luke would argue with that. Maybe none of these stories are true, but maybe they all are. It’s what they do to us that matters. And I’ll bet there’s a whole lot more truth in all of them than not.

“Maybe that’s why Jesus told stories all the time. It’s the stories that are going to keep this movement going. The stories about Jesus and what becomes of his church. The kinds of stories they tell about his followers are what will prepare the way of the Lord and smooth out the rough places in people’s lives.

“It’s not just what we write down that matters. You can tell the most accurate or the best story ever but, as we so often used to hear, you’ve got to have ears to hear. We can’t really control what people do with the stories. Whatever becomes of Christmas is all up to them. But we know what we’ve seen and what we’ve heard. And if the ones to come keep doing the same, make the story their own, tell what they’ve seen and heard, we’ve done our job.”

“So what have you got about Easter? Here’s what I remember….”

Have you ever pondered what Mary was pondering?

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Have you ever pondered what Mary was pondering?
Luke 1:46-55
December 13, 2009
Steve Hammond

It’s hard to wait for something that’s already come. That’s the tricky thing about Advent and Christmas. We are spending all this time trying to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus, but he was born a long time ago. “O come, O come Emmanuel.” But he’s already been here. So what are we doing lighting these candles, and all the other stuff we do getting ourselves ready for Jesus to be born?

We had a discussion at ECO last week with a student who was trying, as she said “to not be so bad with Advent.” I can’t figure out how we can be bad with Advent when I’m not even sure what it is supposed to be about. And how would you know if you were doing it well?

We can’t really prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus since that’s already happened. So are we really using this time to figure out what his birth means? But isn’t that something we want to do all year around? If the important thing is that Jesus has come into the world, come in the vulnerability, in the love, in the peace that Christmas is about, isn’t that just as important on June 13th as it is December 13th?

The gospels of John and Mark don’t even mention Christmas. There’s no Joseph or Mary there. No baby. No shepherds, angels, or wise men. No ruthless Herods or marauding soldiers. No manger. No innkeeper. But those gospels are right there in the Bible. And they give us a pretty intense look at Jesus without ever feeling it was even necessary to mention his birth.

So we can be followers of Jesus without Advent or Christmas. They didn’t exist in the life of the church in its early days. But they are kind of cool, and I’m glad they are a part of the church’s celebration now.

Maybe we’ve focused too much on one character in the great Christmas stories in the Bible. Jesus gets plenty of stories after he and the family flee for Egypt. But the rest. Not much. There’s the story where Mary and Joseph think Jesus is lost and they find him in the Temple. Joseph is never mentioned again. There’s the story of the wedding in Cana where Mary asks Jesus to make sure they don’t run out of wine, and her name is mentioned a couple of other times. But we never hear from the shepherds, the wise men, or the inn keepe, again. Herod does get another mention. His death notice.

So maybe what is really helpful for us at Advent and Christmas is to spend some time thinking about those other characters in the story. Have you ever pondered what Mary pondered? What was it like for those shepherds to hear an army of angels singing? What were their thoughts as they saw that baby the angels were singing about lying in a barn? What on earth was Joseph thinking about? Whatever became of the wise men? How many Herods has this world known? We know what happened to Jesus. But the rest are fair game for all kinds of speculation. Maybe there is a lot they can do to help us get ready for Christmas.

Mary is who we are thinking about this morning. She was young. Some scholars think she could have been 12 years old when Jesus was born. Granted, 12 years old then was different than 12 years old I now, but it is still young.

That song of hers. My soul does magnify the God who has done great things for me, the God who has scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, sent the rich away empty, and filled the hungry with good things. When you hear that song you do ponder what she pondered as she leaned over that manger. Talk about high expectations for your first born.

It seems like she was expecting God to change everything with the birth of her son. I don’t think she was thinking Hallmark Christmas cards as she watched her baby sleep. She was thinking about a world that needed to be turned upside down with the last being first and the first last. (Where do you think Jesus got that?) And her son was going to have something to do with it.

I don’t know of any other situations where a mother has known her new born child is going to be a revolutionary. Ponder that. Are our expectations for Jesus, even when we know the rest of the story, as radical as hers? Mary isn’t using phrases like king of kings and lord of lords. Instead she sings about God scattering the proud and casting down rulers from their thrones.

How many Christmas cards have you gotten this year that talk about God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty?

That’s the Christmas that Mary knew. God was intervening in this world and setting something into motion that was going to turn the world upside down. And God was going to do it through her son.

I can’t imagine she was pleased to have to give birth in a stable no matter the P.R. possibilities it presented. It was the lot of the poor. And when they had to run for their lives, all those babies slaughtered, it was business as usual for the powerful. But her little boy was going to change things.

Mary believed God. She didn’t understand any of it. It made know sense to her that she could become pregnant. And she even told the angel that it was all pretty silly. “How can this be?” But in her next breath she says “Well, let’s give it a shot. This is God we are dealing with after all, so I’m game.” Twelve, thirteen years old. “A little child shall lead them.”

So whatever we are getting ready for at Advent, I hope I am getting ready for what Mary was getting ready for. This baby caught her by surprise in all kinds of ways. Is Advent getting us ready for some surprises?

We think we know the story. But when you ponder about what Mary was pondering, you realize there is a whole lot more to the story than we have been led to believe.

I don’t think that for Mary the circumstances of the birth were what really mattered to her. I think Cana was much more significant to her. “When is this kid of mine going to come into his own, claim for himself what I claimed for him that day with Elizabeth, those crazy days that seem so long ago. Let all mortal flesh keep silence. Now, not then, is when his time is at hand.”

I want to wait for the things she was waiting for. I want a little bit of her faith. I want a little bit of her courage. I want a little bit of her wisdom. I want to ponder what she pondered.

Mary waited a long time. Her advent stretched on for decades. It just came after Christmas, instead of before. And I’ll bet there were many days when she pondered all these things in her heart.

Maybe that’s one way, anyway, to do Advent well. Just keep on doing it, keep waiting all year round for Jesus to come, to come into his own through us.

A Tale of Two Christmases

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

A Tale of Two Christmases
Luke 1:26-45, Isaiah 11:1-9
November 29, 2009
Steve Hammond

[We began by playing excerpts from two Christmas songs. ‘Jingle Bells’ by the Mitch Miller Chorus and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ Then I asked for people’s comments about the two songs.]

In my mind we really have two Christmases. There’s the Santa Claus Christmas with songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ and the Jesus Christmas with ‘O Come all Ye Faithful,’ and ‘Angels We Have Heard on High.’ I see them as two separate holidays though, granted, people keep trying to find ways to make Jesus fit into the Santa Claus one. But we don’t have to do that. Instead of trying to make one hybrid Christmas out of the two, I think we should let them be on their separate tracks, and enjoy both of them.

The issue isn’t putting Christ back into Christmas, because he has never left the Jesus Christmas and was never intended to have much to do with the Santa Claus Christmas. Don’t forget that Santa Claus was never much of a big deal in the U.S. until he became a marketing tool for Coca Cola. Then the Santa Claus Christmas took off in a big way. Here’s the cover from the Holiday Land’s End Catalog. Notice there is no mention of Jesus in all those references to Christmas they are making. This is an ode to the Santa Claus Christmas.

And the Santa Claus Christmas is okay. It’s fun. There are all those neat traditions that come with it, not to mention the cookies and candy. There’s time off work. You get to see friends and family. And you’ve got to love Christmas morning around the Christmas tree.

It’s a different Christmas, though, than the Jesus Christmas, which we are beginning to celebrate today with the first Sunday of Advent. And it ends, for me, with Christmas Eve. Santa Claus can have Christmas Day, because what matters for me about my own celebration of Christmas culminates the night before, right in this place.

When our kids were growing up and all around the house, the transition from the Jesus Christmas to the Santa Claus Christmas was abrupt. We’d leave the Christmas Eve Service and drive around town looking at the lights. When we got home the girls would bring out all the Christmas presents and put them under the tree. Then we would set up for our annual Night Before Christmas slumber party in the living room. Then when everyone was finally awake and going the next morning, usually late the next morning, we would celebrate the Santa Claus Christmas with reckless abandon, tearing into the presents, and eating the Sarah Lee coffee cake and the Russell Stover’s candy.

We can’t quite do all of that the same way now, with a grand baby to celebrate with and the girls scattered about. But when we do leave for Columbus after this year’s Christmas Eve Service is over, with the presents packed in the car, I will have the coffee cake and candy with me.

So I’ve got no problems with the Santa Claus Christmas. I’m just glad that it comes second to the Jesus Christmas for me, and that I’m pretty much done with the Jesus Christmas celebration before Santa Claus gets my full attention.

Here’s what I like best about the Jesus Christmas. It says it so well in the beginning of John’s Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not over come it.” Times can be dark for many in our world. There are dark times in our lives. But God refuses to let the darkness win. The story goes that Jesus was born in the darkness of the night with that star blazing above. Jesus walked many dark paths, including that first one which was to Egypt when he was just a couple of years old and running for his life. And not even the darkness of the tomb could overcome him. And that light still shines today. That’s what this Advent wreath is about.

This is what we celebrate with the Jesus Christmas, the light he brought into the world. He showed us the way through the darkness. The way of faith. The way of peace. The way of love. The way of forgiveness and reconciliation. The way of welcome and inclusion. The way of community. The way that breaks through walls and tears down prejudices. The way of hope.

And not only do we celebrate the light and hope we have in Jesus during the Jesus Christmas celebration, we celebrate the light and hope we are to others. Jesus was the light of the world, the one who lights up our lives. But what did he say to his followers? ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Loving God in heaven.’

So Christmas, the Jesus Christmas, is not only about Jesus. It’s also about us. It’s about what can become of our lives and the glory we can bring to God no matter how dark it is when the light of Jesus shines on us. The author J.I. Packer calls it reflected glory. We can bring what Jesus brought so the light, the peace, the joy, the love, the hope of Christmas that people read about in their Christmas cards and sing about in their Christmas carols does not have to remain the vague longings of a world that could be. Instead, that can all be about a world that we are dedicated to building with each other as those who are followers of that baby born in that manger.

As I’ve said in the past, I don’t believe Jesus has called us to things we could never do. He didn’t come to light up a path we could never walk on. Following his example and his teachings may not be easy, but I don’t think he would have asked us if he didn’t believe that we could do it, if he didn’t have faith that God would enable us to walk in peace, and joy, and love, and hope.

Darkness is not a new thing to us. What did Isaiah say? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy.” Those words of hope were spoken a long time ago in very dark times. And it’s the most surprising people who bring that hope, who shine the light.

Mary, a peasant girl, living in the backwaters of a backwater nation was open to the possibility of God at work in her. She didn’t see how it could work, but she was willing to give it a try and see if God was really on to something. As crazy as it all seemed, she was able and willing to be a part of the story, ready to be that city on the hill, that light that shines and reveals the goodness and ways of God.

That’s the Christmas that matters most to me, the Christmas that challenges us to something more, helps us get in touch with our inner Mary. Santa is fine, as far as he goes, which is not all that far. But with Jesus, it’s not some kind of flyover and dropping off a few presents. He invites us to ride along because he has places to take us on a path that begins in a stable.

So while those silver bells are ringing and those jingle bells are jingling, we can still ponder these things in our hearts. It is a tale of two Christmases. Happy holidays.