981) Too Ordinary? (1/2)

Joseph-and-Mary

     There are two perspectives from which we can view the Christmas story.  Both are presented in the Bible.  From one perspective, we see the greatest, most unexpected, most wonderful miracle of all time– the Almighty God of heaven and earth, Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe, decides to visit planet earth– and he does so as a human being. The Gospel of John speaks most powerfully and eloquently from this perspective of the divine and the miraculous.  John chapter one says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made.  In Him was life, and the light that shines in the darkness.  That Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.  In Jesus we have seen the glory of God.”  And in Luke we read that the angel told Mary that her Son would sit on the throne of David and that his kingdom would last forever.  In these places and many more, the Bible makes no mistake about it– this birth would be the focal point of all history.  It had been predicted for centuries, and now, it was even more miraculous than ever expected– God himself was in the one born.  God himself lay in that manger.  That is one perspective on the story.

     From the other perspective, this was just another birth to a young couple in a small town– all very ordinary.   It was perhaps not completely ordinary.  Mary, of course, became pregnant out of wedlock, no doubt to the embarrassment of her parents and the disappointment of Joseph, who knew he was not the father.  But that sort of thing happened in those days, too.  Mary, and then later, Joseph, were told about the miraculous circumstances of this pregnancy.  But to everyone who knew them this was just another unplanned pregnancy and birth.  Mary and Joseph probably did not have much success in explaining to the neighbors about the angel’s announcement of a virgin birth.

     Behind the scenes there are a few miracles going on, but the Bible goes on with this ordinary perspective to tell of the normal engagement of Mary and Joseph, which would have meant the usual one year waiting period before marriage.  It tells of the government decree that a census should be taken, and the inconvenience of Mary and Joseph having to travel all the way to Bethlehem to register.  Then there is the frustration of no room in the inn, and the baby being born that very night in the only place they could get– a stable, of all places.  From this perspective, it does indeed look like nothing more than day to day life as we know it, just one darned thing after another going wrong.  There are no miracles.  They can’t even get a place to stay.  This is that second perspective, and it is a very different way to see the story.

     The same event, and told from these two very different perspectives– one so very ordinary, and in the other, an extraordinary miracle; and BOTH are true.

     Once in a while, we see the two perspectives come together.  For example, there is a group of plain old shepherds, out doing their ordinary work on an ordinary night.  Suddenly, the entire sky was lit up in a very extraordinary way, and a host of heavenly angels were singing “Glory to God in the highest.”  Then one of the angels told them to go to Bethlehem to see this baby who is born to be the Savior of the whole world, and when they go, they see the most ordinary of situations.  But, says the Gospels, behind the scenes the destiny of the world was being worked out, as the Lord God was entering his creation in person to make all things new and right again.

     So we see in the Bible a God who chooses to do his most extra-ordinary work in very ordinary ways.  We might wish for something more spectacular– an unmistakable miracle perhaps, even now, for us to see; something that would provide a clear and convincing proof that God is there and loves us.  But God prefers to work in and through the ordinary, and call us to faith on that basis.  (continued…)

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II Corinthians 5:19a  —  …God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself…

Acts 2:22  —  (Peter said),  “Fellow Israelites, listen to this:  Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”

Luke 2:8-12  —  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

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Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men.  Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world.  Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.  Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.  May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

–Robert Louis Stevenson  
(1850-1894)

980) Bodies and Spirits (2/2)

     (…continued)  It is no wonder that down through the ages one of the main items on the agenda for philosophy and religion has been this whole area of the relationship between the spirit and the flesh.  Plato gave birth to the whole study of philosophy with the thought that you could think your way out of your body, transcending all the limits of the flesh by high and lofty thoughts.  Buddha followed a similar path, adding a religious flavor to the whole thing.  For Buddha, nirvana became a heaven in your mind, a mind lifted far above the concerns and needs of the weak flesh.  However, I would still bet that when Plato or Buddha stubbed their toe real hard, it was back to thinking about the body and nothing else.  Injuries and illnesses can turn the body into a prison.  But in some religions and philosophies the body is nothing but a prison, and only the spirit matters.

     The Bible itself has much to say about this.  For example, Galatians, 5:17 says, “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh; they are in conflict with each other, and so you end up not doing what you want to do.”  This may even be one reason why people come to church.  We want to be controlled less by our lower nature and desires, and more receptive to and motivated by our higher, spiritual nature.

     Oddly enough, this all has something to do with Christmas.  In fact, it goes to the very heart of the Christmas message.  After all, when John in his Gospel wanted to describe what it means that Jesus came to earth, he began by referring to Jesus as ‘the Word.’  He began his Gospel by saying ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’  That is some deep theology, expressing some highly spiritual concerns.  When you think of God, you are thinking in primarily spiritual terms, right?  John would agree, saying that God is a Spirit and Jesus was God in this mysterious, profound, spiritual Word, — that was there with God from the beginning, and was God.

     But then John goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Became flesh!  Plato, Buddha, the New Agers, and the Scientologists all want to escape the flesh and get into something new and better and different.  But God becomes flesh, born in the usual messy way, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a manger.  God, while fully aware of all the problems and pains we get into because of our flesh, still likes the stuff.   He created it, after all, and in Jesus, God himself took on that frail, frail flesh.  And Jesus was tempted by that flesh; ‘Turn these stones into bread,’ the devil said to him when his body was hungry.  But Jesus resisted all temptation and remained sinless.  Jesus, however, did not escape that other curse upon flesh, the curse of pain and death.  As you well know, he suffered and endured that to its fullest measure.  God, in Jesus, sanctifies the flesh, makes holy the body, and proclaims the message that salvation is not attained by escaping the body, but in rising from the dead with a new and glorified body for all eternity.  Plato and Buddha didn’t think of that, and if they had, they would not have been able to pull it off.  But God could, and chose to do so by first of all, taking on this body, this flesh; and in then, in himself, suffering all that would involve.  That is what it means to say that God was in that manger.  God in human flesh.

     Then on the night before he died, and just a few weeks before he would return to his heavenly home, Jesus gave the disciples something to remember him by.  It would be a specific ritual with specific words to say:  “This is my Body, given for you– do this in remembrance of me…’’  And why?  “For the forgiveness of sins,” he said.  In this world our bodies will tempt us, torment us, and grieve us to no end.  But the body is not the problem.  This flesh is God’s good gift.  Sin is the problem, and in looking to Jesus, we receive both the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body; a new, solid, and no longer frail body, perfected and eternal, made to live forever in God’s home.

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Listen to Where We’ll Never Grow Old, sung by Johnny Cash on the album My Mother’s Hymn Book:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OinMWY7IymA

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Lyrics to Where We’ll Never Grow Old; words and music by James C. Moore (1888-1962):

I have heard of a land on the far away strand,
’Tis a beautiful home of the soul;
Built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die,
’Tis a land where we’ll never grow old.

Refrain

Never grow old, never grow old,
In a land where we’ll never grow old;
Never grow old, never grow old,
In a land where we’ll never grow old.

In that beautiful home where we’ll never more roam,
We shall be in the sweet by and by;
Happy praise to the King through eternity ring,
’Tis a land where we never shall die.  Refrain

When our work here is done and the life crown is won,
And our troubles and trials are o’er;
All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend,
With the loved ones who’ve gone on before.  Refrain

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John 1:1-5…14  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Galatians 5:13  —   You… were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

Galatians 5:16-17  —  So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

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THE THIRD ARTICLE OF THE APOSTLE’S CREED:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

978) Make Room

     One of the best-loved Christmas carols is Joy to the World.  The song begins with “Joy to the world, the Lord has come; let earth receive its King;” and then we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.”  Prepare him room, it says, or, make room for Jesus.  The phrase brings to mind that very first Christmas when there was no room in the inn– no room, not even for a woman about to give birth.  Imagine that, the Son of God, here to visit his own creation, and there is not even room for him to be born.

     How about for you?  The hymn seems to ask, “Is there any room in your heart and in your life for this Lord?”  He came for you– do you have any room for him?  “Joy to the world,” we sing, “the Lord has come; let every heart prepare him room.”  No room in the inn for a pregnant woman about to give birth to the Son of God?  How outrageous!  But is it any less outrageous that God himself wants to be with little you, has come to earth to live a life like you, has died for you to forgive you of all your sins, has risen from the dead for you so that you too may live forever– all that for us, and we have to be told to see if we can make a little room for him in our busy lives!

     Every detail of this story as it is told in the Gospels is significant, and the fact that there was no room for Jesus in the inn is also symbolic of the many people in the world who still have no room for him.  And the fact that Jesus was born in the poorest and humblest of circumstances is also symbolic of the fact that throughout history it has been the poorest and humblest people who have been most willing to make room for Jesus.  It was among the slaves and lower classes that the early church took root and grew most of all.  Today it is among the poor of the Southern hemisphere that the church grows by leaps and bounds, while in the wealthier countries of Europe and the United States the church is in rapid decline.  There was room for Jesus in Bethlehem on that first Christmas, but not in the busy comfort of the inn.  Rather, it was out among the cattle in the stable, where many necessities were lacking, and there were many dangers for a newborn.  

     The same is true in our lives.  The more comfortable we are, the less likely we are to make room for Jesus.  It is when we are in discomfort or despair or anxiety or hopelessness that we are most likely to remember Jesus, and remember to make room for him in our hearts.  Best of all, of course, is if we do not forget Jesus in our good times; then when hardships do come, Jesus can be there for us like an old friend.

     When I was in college in the 1970’s I was assigned to read the book Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler.  The book has a chapter on what Toffler called “over-choice,” in which he predicted that in the future there would be so many choices for pleasure, communication, entertainment, travel, education, television, leisure, fitness, sports, and so on, that all these many opportunities would become no longer something positive, but a source of frustration.  People would have so much and do so much, and still feel like they were missing out on something, because there would be still so much more to be had.

     Well, that future is here.  Our lives are incredibly full compared with even a couple generations ago, and we are still frustrated and anxious.  There are even words now for this condition– FOMO– Fear Of Missing Out; or if you are older, FOHMO– Fear Of Having Missed Out.

     Now, with all these wonderful choices available, fewer and fewer people have the time or energy for what Jesus called that “one thing needed.”  Jesus said that to Martha who was so very busy with so many things that she did not have room in her schedule for Jesus, even though Jesus was making a personal visit in her home that day.

     Jesus will probably not be coming to your home in person like that, so what would it look like for you to ‘make room for Jesus’ in your daily life?  You do have to keep your mind on what you are doing and you can’t be just thinking about Jesus all the time.  But you can probably keep him in mind more than you do.  When something goes well for you or you get some unexpected good news, you can say in a one sentence prayer, “Thank you, Lord.”  If something goes wrong, or you get some unexpected bad news, you can in a one sentence prayer, ‘Lord, be with me,” or, “Lord, be with them,” or simply, “Lord, have mercy.”  If you have a decision to make, you can pray, “Lord, what would you have me do?;” and when you are tempted to do something wrong, you can pray, “Lord, give me the wisdom and the strength to do what is right.”

     With practice, such simple prayers can become a habit, and then you will be, in fact, preparing room in your heart for Jesus; and you will grow in faith, and then experience more and more that joy that has come into the world in Jesus.

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Luke 2:7  —  She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 10:38b-42  —  …(Jesus) came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.  She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

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Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room…

–Isaac Watts  (1674-1748)

970) Peace on Earth?

Varvel

San Bernardino, California; December 2, 2015

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     As in the picture above, the Christmas carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day expresses the sad message that “there is no peace on earth.”  The song was originally written as a poem, Christmas Bells, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).  Longfellow’s first wife, Mary, died in 1835 at the age of 22 after a miscarriage.  He was deeply saddened by her death, writing “One thought occupies me night and day…  She is dead — She is dead!  All day I am weary and sad.”  Eight years later he married Frances Appleton, and they had six children.  In an accident at their home in 1861 Frances’ dress caught fire and she was badly burned.  Longfellow was also severely burned as he tried to save her.  Frances died the next day, and though Longfellow’s burns healed, he was again heartbroken.  That was the same year the American Civil War broke out and for four years the nation was torn apart by that long nightmare.  In November of 1863 Longfellow’s son Charles was severely wounded in a battle in Virginia.  

     On Christmas day of that year Longfellow heard the church bells ringing and wrote Christmas Bells.  The poem expresses his despair, saying that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men;” but then concludes on the word of hope that God will prevail and there will again be peace.

     The poem was first set to music in 1872 by English organist John Calkin.  Only five of the seven stanzas are in the commonly used version, but there have been other musical arrangements and other versions of the lyrics.

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Christmas Bells

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!”

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The song “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day” performed by Casting Crowns:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F756Mjxxrvc

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Luke 2:13-14  —  Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

John 14:27  —  (Jesus said), “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Colossians 3:15  —  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.

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 Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

–From a 1955 song by Sy and Jill Miller

969) Going Home for Christmas? (part two of two)

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     (…continued)  In Matthew 2:11 we read that the wise men brought expensive gifts to the baby Jesus– gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  This is where the tradition of gift giving at Christmas comes from.  This giving of gifts gets way over done these days, but the tradition itself goes all the way back to that very first Christmas.

     Then, right after Christmas, all over the world, another Christmas tradition is carried out; that is, the tradition of returning those Christmas gifts to the store in order to get the cash to get what you really want or need.  Did you ever wonder where that tradition got started?

     I think there is a good chance that that tradition also goes back to the very first Christmas.  I think Mary and Joseph probably took that gold, frankincense and myrrh back to the store, (or back to wherever they could), in order to get the cash, which is what they really needed.  Think about it.  Mary and Joseph did not have much money.  We know this from the description of the sacrifice they offered at the temple when they went there after Jesus was born.  Luke 2:24 says they offered what the Law required, “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”  That was a poor man’s offering.  Those who were not poor were required by Temple Law to offer a more expensive sacrifice, such as a lamb or a calf.  But the poor were allowed to get by with a couple of birds.  So Mary and Joseph were indeed poor.  They were already forced to make the journey to Bethlehem, and then, as now, traveling takes money.  There is the expense of being on the road, along with the loss of time at work.   Just to get to Bethlehem was probably a financial hardship for Mary and Joseph.

    Then came the warning to flee to Egypt.  This meant more time and expense on the road, more time away from work, uncertain job prospects when they got to the strange land, a new baby to take care of, and no idea of when they would be able to return.  It would be like a young couple today, borrowing money for a little weekend getaway to the lake, and then once there, being told they could not go home, but had to fly to Europe and live there for a few years.  How would Mary and Joseph have managed the flight to Egypt as refugees?

      You can’t eat gold, frankincense, or myrrh.  They are, to be sure, gifts that bestow a high honor on the one to whom they are given, and that in itself is an important part of the story as a testimony to who Jesus was.  He was born to be King of the whole world, even the distant nations, symbolized by the arrival of the wise men from the Far East and their costly gifts.  But those gifts were items of luxury for the wealthy only.  They had no practical value, and would be of little help to someone who was desperately poor– unless the costly items could be sold, and the money used to buy food and pay for another journey.  I do think that Mary and Joseph returned, or perhaps in that setting, sold the gifts at a village market, and used the money to survive their desperate financial difficulties.

     This is only speculation, of course, but it is a fact that Mary and Joseph were poor.  We can be certain of that from the Bible account.  This is yet another reason to be amazed at the way God chose to be born into this world– not into wealth or privilege, but into poverty and danger.  We can wonder why God allows bad things to happen to us, even when we do not seem to deserve it; but we must admit that when God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he left himself open to the same dangers, troubles, irritations, and disappointments that we all must face.  You can randomly open the Gospels to any page, and you will find Jesus in the midst of trouble or disappointment, conflict, or agony.  We find this from the very beginning in the difficulties surrounding his birth and first few years.  And we most certainly find this at the end of the story, as Jesus is arrested tortured and executed in one of the most painful ways ever devised.  And there is trouble for Jesus on every page between the beginning and the end.  There are conflicts with religious leaders; there is the unreliability of the crowds, supporting him and then abandoning him; there is the rejection of Jesus by the people in his own hometown; and, there is disloyalty, disappointment and misunderstanding even by those closest to him.  The Old Testament prophet Isaiah had foretold that the Messiah would be a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” and he certainly was.  

     Yes, we also get our share of troubles, sooner or later, or all the time.  The sorrows and troubles are not doled out with mathematical precision and equality, but they do come.  The old hymn-writer was right when he called this world a “vale of tears.”  That is how it is in this world, our home– the only home we know so far.  It can also be a wonderful home, but oftentimes it is not.  

     Jesus was born into our world and our home, in order to show us the way to his most perfect heavenly home.  Christmas is indeed all about going  home.

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Isaiah 53:3a  —  He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

Matthew 2:11  —  On coming to the house, (the Magi) saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Luke 2:22…24  —  When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took (Jesus) to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…, and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

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Almighty and most merciful God,
we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget:
the homeless and the destitute,
the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them.
Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy.
Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

968) Going Home for Christmas? (part one of two)

      In 1923 Buck Ram, a young, homesick college student, was feeling sad because he would not be able to go home for Christmas that year.  Sensing that his mother might also be sad about him not being home, he wrote a little poem to send to her, along with a letter he was writing.

     Twenty years later, Buck was a successful songwriter and music producer.  One evening, he was in a bar with a couple of guys who were also in the music business, Walter Kent and Kim Gannon.  Buck told the two men how he had been working on making a song out of this old poem of his, but still wasn’t pleased with the result.  He jotted down what he had done with it so far and showed it to them.  When they parted, and when Buck wasn’t looking, one of his friends picked up the piece of paper with the poem on it.  The next year, Kent and Gannon released a song entitled “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sung on that first album by Bing Crosby.  It was 1943, and with so many soldiers off to war and thinking about home, it became a huge hit.  Buck Ram immediately recognized the song as a reworking of his poem that he had shown to the two men the year before.  Ram had already copyrighted the poem, so he went to court to sue Kent and Gannon, and won the case.  Kent and Gannon then owed Buck Ram some money, but it was then their song.  They had, in fact, reworked it considerably, and it went on to become on of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.

     “I’ll be home for Christmas, tho’ just in memory,” Buck Ram had written.

     Kent and Gannon changed it to those lines that are now so familiar:

I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me…
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

     “Only in my dreams…”  That is, of course, how it was for many soldiers in 1943, and that is how it has to be for many people for a variety of reasons.  Here in Minnesota, the weather sometimes keeps families from getting together for Christmas.  That is then for many people a big disappointment, because being home for Christmas is indeed such a huge holiday tradition.  For many families, with members living all over the country, Christmas is the only time they get together.  Making the trip can be a challenge for a whole family to schedule, a huge expense for those flying, and a significant hassle to make it all work, even when the weather is fine.  For most people, the trip is well worth it.  It is important to maintain those family ties and connections, and that cannot be done without occasional visits and traditions– and being together at home for Christmas is one of the best-loved family traditions.

     It is worth noting that this season, which has become the one time of year that people really try to go home, began with the story of a young family that was a long ways from home.  The story of the first Christmas begins with the story of a journey, a journey away from home, which for Mary and Joseph was Nazareth, to Bethlehem, where Joseph was required to register with the Roman government for a census.  Bethlehem was seventy miles from Nazareth, they would have to walk, and Mary was almost ready to give birth.  It was not a good time for a journey and not a good time to be away from the comfort and the support of home.

     To make matters even worse, when the registration was done, and after the baby had been born, Mary and Joseph were still not able to go home for a very long time.  Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of the wise men, who meant well, but unknowingly put the new baby’s life in danger by telling King Herod about the birth of this new King.  After the wise men leave the holy family, Joseph was warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt and hide there for a while because King Herod would be trying to kill Jesus.  Then Matthew tells us of Herod’s wicked decree that all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two were to be killed.  Think of the grief that caused for those many families in Bethlehem!  

     Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus did flee in time, but they had to stay in Egypt for two full years until the death of Herod.  Only then was it safe to finally return home to Nazareth.  (continued…)

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Luke 2:1…3-5  —  In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  And everyone went to their own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

Matthew 2:13-15a  —  When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.

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Lord, we pray for our own families at Christmas time; for those who will be with us, and for those who will be far away; for those too young to understand all the excitement, and for those who feel sad because of memories of those who are no longer with us.  Help us to be patient with one another, and show us how we can put the love of Jesus at the heart of Christmas.  Amen.

967) The Messiah and Scrooge

By Al Rogness, The Word for Every Day, Augsburg, 1981, page 359.

     No Christmas seems complete for me without hearing again the great message of the Lord’s redemption in Handel’s Messiah and in reading the story of a man’s transformation in Dicken’s character, Scrooge.

     For over 200 years since its premier in Dublin, the Messiah has inspired audiences the world over.  Opening with the tenor recitative from Isaiah, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people, saith your God,” and rising to the heights in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and closing with its thrilling lines, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” it joins a remarkable selection of Scripture with an inspired musical score to usher the listener, or worshiper, into the vestibule of heaven.

     From Ireland it moved to England where in 1759, at Covent Garden, Handel, then nearly blind, made his last public appearance, dying eight days later on the eve of Easter Sunday.  From England it went to Germany, where at one performance there were a thousand singers and instrumentalists.  Parts of the oratorio were first sung in the United States in a New York tavern in 1770.

     In Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol the night visitor, Marley’s ghost, warns his partner, Scrooge, that a grim fate like his awaits him if he does not mend his ways.  Scrooge says, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.”  Marley replies, “Business… Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business: charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”  And, after the “miracle” of Scrooge’s transformation, I like the words that summarize the change:  “Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew… and it was said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge.”

     Next to the incomparable story in Luke 2, these two pieces, the Messiah and The Christmas Carol, set the tone for my Christmas.  They can for yours, too.

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Marley’s Ghost visits Ebeneezer Scrooge

From A Christmas Carol, 1843, by Charles Dickens:  

     “Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “…Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness.  Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!  Yet such was I!  Oh! such was I!”

     “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

     “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

     It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

     “At this time of the rolling year,” the specter said “I suffer most.  Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

     Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the specter going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.

Read the entire book on-line at:

http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Charles_Dickens/A_Christmas_Carol/index.html

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Luke 2:1-7  —  And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

     And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

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Text of HALLELUJAH CHORUS from the Messiah (1741) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759):

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!…

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever, forever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!…

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If link does not appear above, view at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXh7JR9oKVE

625) The Wise(?) Men (part one of two)

 The Magi in the House of Herod by James Tissot    

     The Wise Men and Herod, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

     Matthew 2:1-12 tells the story of the Wise Men’s visit to the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus.  This is one of the most familiar of all Bible stories.  We hear it every year.  We see three Wise Men in front yard Christmas displays, we receive pictures of their visit on Christmas cards, and many of us were Wise Men in long ago Christmas programs.  The story seems not odd or strange at all, but very familiar.

     But to anyone hearing this story for the first time in the first century, the appearance of these men would have seemed very odd indeed.  Upon hearing that these three characters had come to see the newborn Savior, those early readers would have asked, “What are they doing in the story?  Who invited them?”  It was God, of course, who invited them, and, who saw to it that they found their way to the right place, leading them by that bright star and all.  But the average Jew of that day, for whom Matthew was primarily writing, would certainly be wondering why God would have included them.  When it came to religion, the Jews at that time were very careful about who was in and who was out, and those men were about as far out as anyone could get.

     First of all, they were foreigners– ‘from the East,’ says verse one.  Secondly, they were not ‘wise’ men.  That is an awful translation, so far from the original that it is hard to imagine how the word ‘wise’ ever got connected to this story.  They were, in the Greek, ‘Magi,’ from which we get our word magician, and there is nothing in the rest of New Testament to indicate they were anything more dignified than that.  And they certainly were not kings, as in ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’  They weren’t wise and they weren’t kings and nothing in the text indicates that they were.  There are Greek words for wise men and for kings, but those are not the words used here.  The word used is ‘magi,’ and in the two other places in the New Testament where the word magi appears, it is used in an unfavorable way.  In Acts 8, it is Simon the Magi (there translated sorcerer) who opposes the ministry of the Apostles; and in Acts 13 there is Elymas the Magi, and there the word is often translated ‘false prophet.’  Nowadays, a magician may have a respectable job as an entertainer, and children can do magic tricks for fun.  But in the New Testament world, magic was more in the realm of black magic; sorcery, fortune telling, astrology, and the like, the kinds of things God had forbidden, and not the sort of thing any respectable Jew would be interested in.

     Not only that, these men were not wise, but very naive– at least when it came to politics.  Who, after all, would go to the current king in power and ask him where the new king could be found?  Certainly, no one would have asked this of jealous King Herod who already had two sons and a wife killed because he had some suspicions that they might be thinking about replacing him as king.  Herod, of course, would want more information about this new competitor for his throne, and when the Magi did not return to tell him what they found, Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two years old killed.  If the Magi had not gone to the King in the first place, this slaughter would not have happened.

     These men from the east, whatever we might call them, are not Jews, they are not in a respectable profession, and they do not seem to be very wise at all in the ways of the world.  So the first readers of this story would have seen them not as a natural part of an old familiar story, as we now see them.  Rather, they would seem to be as out of place as Rush Limbaugh at a fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi.

     But these Magi had one big thing going for them.  They were on a search, the most important search of all, and they were taking great pains to seek and find this newborn King.  They had been looking in the wrong place, the stars, but they did see something there, God knows what– and I do mean God.  It would probably be more accurate to say God saw something in their desire to seek out this King, and then God honored their search by leading them to the right place.  (continued…)

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Matthew 2:1-2  —  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him?”

Matthew 2:3  —  When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Isaiah 60:1-3  —  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.  See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.  Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

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O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:  Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

622) Emmanuel

     

     Several years ago my brother and I traveled to Haiti to visit the work of a missionary in Port au Prince.  Before leaving, we collected school supplies, clothing, and toys to bring to the children at a school we would be visiting.  It was fun giving so many things to children who had so little.  Every toy, every notebook, every pencil, and even each piece of gum was appreciated.  The pastor of the church that sponsored the school said to us, “We are so grateful for all that you have brought us.  It will be put to good use.  But we are even more grateful that you came to be with us.  Our work here can be difficult and lonely.  It means so much to us that you brought these things to us in person.  We do not get many visitors here.”

     Gilbert and Harriet were an elderly home-bound couple that I visited in a previous congregation.  One time when I visited right after Christmas there was a brand new television in the corner.  “What a nice TV,” I said.  “Yes,” said Harriet, “our son had it sent to us for Christmas.  And look at that wonderful bouquet of flowers on the table.  He had those delivered to us also.  And that nice big recliner that Gilbert is always sitting in is also a gift from our son.  Our son lives in California, you know, and he ordered that chair over his computer, and just like that, it was here for Gil’s birthday.”

     “Your son buys you nice gifts,” I said.

     “Yes he does,” said Gil gruffly, “but for my part he could forget the gifts and use the money to buy a plane ticket and visit us sometime.  There is no gift that would mean more to his mother and me than that.  He calls once in a while, but he hasn’t been here for over three years.  It would be so nice to have him here with us again sometime, even for short visit, but it doesn’t happen.”

     In both stories gifts were given and were appreciated.  This is the season for gift giving.  You may receive some wonderful gifts, and you may be excited about surprising someone with a nice gift.  But we all know that the best gift is the gift of ourselves to each other.  To be present with those we love is indeed the greatest present.  How disappointing it is when loved ones cannot be together at this time of year.  In my visit to Haiti, it was the gift of being there in person that was most appreciated; and for Gil and Harriet, that was the gift that was wished for more than anything.

     Our God is the giver of so many good gifts.  Everything we have is from Him.  Our lives, our families, our homes, our food; we owe everything to this generous God.  And at Christmas-time we gather at church (another gift of God) to celebrate God’s greatest gift– the gift of himself, the gift of his own personal presence here with us, in our world.

     John’s Gospel begins with these words:   “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” referring to Jesus as the Word.  Then, says verse 14, “This Word took on human flesh and lived among us for a while, and we have seen him.”  Verse ten tells us that He was in the world that ‘was made through him.’  In the past, God had sent prophets and angels.  But in the birth of Jesus, God himself came to be with us.  In doing so, says the book of Hebrews, God saw and felt firsthand what it was like to live a human life, to be tempted, to suffer in both body and spirit, to laugh, to cry, and even to die.  This is the miracle we celebrate at Christmas.  “Oh come, Oh come Emmanuel,” we sing.  Emmanuel  means ‘God with us.’

     I love to read.  Reading can transport me to long ago times and faraway places– even to Haiti.  But reading about Haiti and visiting Haiti are two very different things.  To be in Haiti, to visit those desperately poor slums, to walk the muddy streets, to see and smell the filth that accumulates in a place with no city services for sanitation or sewage; to meet the people who are stuck living there, and yet, see their faith and joy and humor– this all means so much more.  By being there you learn things and feel things that you could never get from a book.  The Haitians know that, and so they are grateful for those who come to see, and to feel, and to be with them.

     The Bible portrays an Almighty God who knows everything and can do anything.  But still, as implied in Hebrews chapter four, there were things God could feel only by being here in person.  Hebrews four says that Jesus is able to “empathize with us in our weakness, because he was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he did not sin,” and the next chapter says “he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself was subject to weakness;” and, it says, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears… and he too learned obedience by what he suffered.” Think about that!  God, in Christ, had to learn what it was like to be human, and he learned it by being here, by visiting us, by being one of us.  There’s comfort in that, just like the people in Haiti are comforted by those who came to share their burdens.  God becoming a man in Jesus is something like that, but infinitely deeper and more wonderful.  For this is the all-powerful, all-knowing God; learning about suffering, about being weak, and about being tempted– learning about being human.

      That is the miracle and the wonder of that life which began on Christmas.  

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Matthew 1:22-23  —  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

II Corinthians 5:19a  —  …God was in Christ…

Hebrews 4:14-16  —  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

James 1:17  —  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

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O God, our Father, we remember at this Christmas time how the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
We thank you that Jesus took our human body upon him, so that we can never again dare to despise or neglect or misuse the body, since you made it your dwelling-place.
We thank you that Jesus did a day’s work like any working-man, that he knew the problem of living together in a family, that he knew the frustration and irritation of serving the public, that he had to earn a living, and had to face all the wearing routine of everyday work and life and living, and so clothed each common task with glory.
We thank you that he shared in all happy social occasions, that he was at home at weddings and at dinners and at festivals in the homes of simple ordinary people like ourselves.  Grant that we may ever remember that in his unseen presence he is a guest in every home.
We thank you that he knew what friendship means, that he had his own circle of those whom he wanted to be with him; that he knew too what it means to be let down, to suffer from disloyalty and from the failure of love.
We thank you that he too had to bear unfair criticism, prejudiced opposition, malicious and deliberate misunderstanding.
We thank you that whatever happens to us, he has been there before, and that, because he himself has gone through things, he is able to help those who are going through them.
Help us never to forget that Jesus knows life because he lived a life, and that he is with us at all times to enable us to live with confidence and hope.
This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

A Barclay Prayer Book, William Barclay, pages 16-17

620) Christmas is Undefeatable

By Mark Tooley at:  www.juicyecumenism.com

     A new Pew survey shows overwhelming majorities of Americans believe in the historical actuality of the Christmas story, including the Virgin Birth, the angels appearing to shepherds and the Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem.  These majorities include young and old, Catholic and Protestant, black and white, male and female, even large numbers of the religiously unaffiliated.

     The Christmas Pew poll might surprise many secularists and religious alike, both of whom too often subscribe to the myth, peddled by popular and high culture, that America is more and more secular as part of an arc of historical inevitability.  The truth is more complicated.  Church attendance has remained roughly the same for 80 years, according to Gallup.  Americans were never as wholly pious in the past as often imagined, nor are they forsaking religion whole-scale now.

     Chronic attempts to secularize/neutralize Christmas keep failing.  The Christmas message is irrepressible, and Christmas is almost certainly celebrated by more billions now globally than at any other time in history.  Many celebrants of course don’t realize fully Whose birthday they’re celebrating, but they are unconsciously, providentially perpetuating the remembrance and themes of good will rooted in divine incarnation.

     Christmas is the eternal, undefeated counter narrative to tyranny, hatred, poverty, prejudice, chicanery, peevishness and pessimism.  When FDR and Churchill worshiped on Christmas Day 1941 in Washington at Foundry Methodist Church in the gloom of WWII, they robustly sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with the affirmation and promise that “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

     In his radio address to America the night before Churchill foreshadowed this hymn by urging that on Christmas Eve “each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace,” in anticipation of “a free and decent world.”

     The Christmas story is the promise of ongoing and ultimate redemption for the whole world from all tragedy and evil.  That promise is winsomely irresistible and will be celebrated forever, long after the skeptics, scoffers and scolds are long forgotten.

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“And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Luke 2:13-14  —  Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Philippians 2:9-11  —  God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Revelation 21:5-6  —  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me:  “It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”

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

–O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1867,  verse four

Phillips Brooks  (1835-1893)