Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 29 sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: Leftovers

Luke 2:41-52 (NRSV)
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
‘Twas the week after Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even your spouse.
The stockings which hung by the chimney with care
Were dumped out and empty and thrown in a chair.

The kids all slept late, they’d stayed out ‘til two thirty,
Which was fine, since that girl that your son thinks is flirty
Surprised you by coming to your Christmas dinner
and said that you cooked well … for a beginner.

And your daughter, who’d just left for college last fall,
Decided that she wouldn’t come home at all.
But then, in a miracle, changed her decision,
When you told her she could pay her own tuition.

When out in the living room rose such a clatter
You sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Though not quite, for these days, you’re slightly less springy
Than your mangy old dog or a deflated dinghy.

But surprise! For it had been your mangy old mutt
Who had clattered and clamored and shaken and strut
And who, in the interest of lending a hand
Had just knocked the Christmas tree clean off its stand

And just as your frustration started to taper
you tripped over a pile of torn-apart paper
the good stuff—you’d bought it from old Sally Foster
but now it seems clear she was just an imposter

for the paper lay shredded all over the floor
from presents already returned to the store
and your once-gorgeous home now looked like it could be
Norman Rockwell’s, if Rockwell were on LSD

The Christmas for which you’d been working so hard
Was chewed up, and broken, left battered and charred.
But ah! What is this? Your son is awake!
Perhaps he will share some leftover pound cake!

Or some ham, or a story, or anything, really,
But you ask, and he acts like you’re speaking Swahili
and keeps walking, but before he gets too far
turns and says, “Merry Christmas. Can I have the car?”

Well, the church calls today the Feast of the Holy Family, a name which I find to be absolutely hilarious, because you come to the Bible expecting an idyllic scene of Jesus and Mary and Joseph loving one another and serving one another and staring adoringly at each other, and instead, we are presented with Mary telling Jesus, “Why have you treated us like this?” and Jesus responding, with more than a little lip, “Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” as if you could argue with that particular response.
After the Christmas story, it is a little jarring to be presented with a disagreement. Surely, this is not what Mary expected when the angel came to her and proclaimed good news of great joy. Look, Stacey and I may only be a year into this child-raising thing, but believe me: it is not the arguments I relish.  I relish to the quiet moments, the holy moments, the kind of moments you’d expect to hear about on the day we call the Feast of the Holy Family. I relish the kind of moments you prepare for, that you long for at Christmas.
But this is life, isn’t it? You wrap the gifts, you take the kids to see Santa and cook a huge meal, and just before the end of the movie, your son breaks his glasses and thinks he’s shot his eye out, the neighbor’s dogs come and vanquish the turkey you’ve spent all day cooking, and before you know it, the whole family is in a Chinese restaurant with the Christmas Peking duck.
And so I am glad to see that you have successfully made it out from underneath the reams of wrapping paper that littered the living room. Looking around at attendance today, it seems clear that not everybody has.
I remember being a kid and waking up on December 26, disappointed to discover that though Christmas had been wonderful, the 26th was just another day, and maybe there was some candy left, but it would eventually get eaten, and the new clothes would be worn and the toys would become old, and soon enough, Christmas would give way to a certain ordinariness, a reminder that while holidays are wonderful, life is lived in the everyday; faith is lived not in perfect moments, but in everyday life.
I think about that first Christmas, that silent night when glories streamed from heaven afar and heavenly hosts sang alleluia, and what it must have been like the morning after, when the shepherds had gone home, when Mary, exhausted from giving birth, awoke and remembered that yes, she was in fact in a barn of all places, that the whole night before had not been a dream. And the baby starts to cry, and the baby won’t stop crying, and suddenly it’s twelve years later, and Jesus still has a little attitude. You can just about hear the desperation in his mother’s voice. Why did you do this to us? Why did you do this to me? Do you not remember the story of just how I came to be pregnant with you, of how I narrowly escaped being stoned for giving birth to you? Do you have any idea how difficult it is for me to be your mother?
The trip to the temple had started out well enough. Being good Jews, Mary and Joseph and their family traveled to Jerusalem three times a year for the high holy days, the most important holidays of the year. It is a nice ritual, I think, to return to the temple on these big days. If you have been here at the church on Christmas Eve, you can imagine the hubbub at the temple. People selling things, reunions with friends and family, a chance to catch up with people you had not seen in a long time. It was chaotic, but it was lovely. It gave a people who were scattered a chance to be together.
Mary and Joseph made this trip every year, and if you think that navigating the parking lot at North Dekalb Mall at Christmastime is bad news, just think about what it was like for Jesus’s family to travel for days, fifteen miles a day, in order to be at the temple by Passover.
Fifteen miles on foot! Every day, for days! I tell you what, I get tired just thinking about that. You know, that kind of hike makes me think back to being at camp. Did you ever go on one of those hikes that never seemed to end? I was a camp counselor for ten years at a camp in Arkansas, and I used to be the one to lead those never-ending hikes.
Each summer, the crowning achievement of the Outdoor Living Skills class I taught was to take the campers on a campout at the base of the mountain where the camp was situated. We’d cleared a little campsite there, and so we took the kids down every couple of weeks to set up tents and make foil pack dinners and roast marshmallows for s’mores.
And so one Sunday night a couple of counselors and I took about ten or twelve kids down the mountain, and as soon as we got far enough down the mountain to make a trip back impractical, it started to rain. Now, if it had really begun to pour before we left, we’d have rescheduled the campout. But it waited until we’d already left, so we trudged down the mountain in the rain, with twelve seven-to-fifteen-year-olds, and it’s almost enough to make you understand how Jesus’s parents must have felt on the way to Jerusalem. We’d walk a few feet, somebody would slip in the mud, and then we’d pick them up and keep going until it happened again, which it inevitably did. Somehow, we eventually made it down the mountain, mostly by sliding I think, and we started to set up the tents. Everything was going fine—even the rain had stopped—and I thought to myself, this is not so bad. I’ve led plenty of campouts before. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, let me give you a piece of advice. When taking twelve seven-to-fifteen-year-olds through the woods, never say to yourself, “what could possibly go wrong?” The campfire wouldn’t light, of course, so we had peanut butter crackers for dinner. I think we roasted marshmallows over my lighter. To crown it all, in the rush to beat the rain, I’d forgotten my sleeping bag, so once it came time for bed I took the change of clothes I’d brought with me and arranged them over myself in order to try and keep warm.
And after we went to bed, about two in the morning, as it again started to rain, I gave thanks that at least my camping hammock had a rain fly, you know, sort of a waterproof tarp to sleep under. The tents the kids were sleeping in had rain flies, too, so at least we’d all stay dry. And just as I thought that thought—just as I thought it—I felt a tug on the side of my hammock. I unzipped the top of the hammock and stuck out my head, only to find a shivering, soaking wet seven –year-old boy who proceeded to inform me that his rain fly had a hole in it, and he and his tent-mates were getting soaked.
I thought about lecturing him up and down and using this opportunity to learn a lesson about checking your tent before you left for the campsite, but then I looked at this poor, freezing child at two in the morning, and I remembered that I am not, in fact, a monster, so I did what you do and took down the rain fly that covered my hammock to cover the hole in his. And as I got ready to set up the rain fly and stepped out of the hammock into my shoes, I remembered with a crunch just where I’d left my glasses the night before.
So I pulled the twisted carnage that remained of my glasses out of my shoes, put the rain fly on the camper’s tent, and spent the rest of the night freezing, and soaked, no blanket, no rain protection, no clue why I’d signed up for this particular assignment.
That dark night of the soul was only ended at dawn when I heard another one of the campers quickly unzip his tent and make it about three steps before getting sick all over the campsite. So I packed up my things and prepared to take the kid back up the mountain to the infirmary, when I realized that I was going to get sick, myself, if I didn’t find a dry shirt. Being the only male counselor on that campout, the only dry shirt that came close to fitting me belonged to one of the female counselors, a tie-dyed t-shirt with the word “Bahamas” stitched onto the front which was so clearly made for a woman who would be wearing something underneath it, that the slightest skin contact with the back of that stitching would have never passed the Geneva conventions. Well, I trekked up the mountain with this poor kid, wearing soaking wet blue jeans and a woman’s t-shirt that would have been tight on a Barbie doll, and by the time we made it back to camp, I was grumbling so successfully that I don’t even remember anybody laughing at me, which I am sure they were.
I want you to know that I spent the next week of camp in a bad mood, recovering from that campout, and the only thing that shook me out of that funk was hearing some of my campers on the last night of camp talk to their parents. These were kids who had grown up on video games and hot pockets; before coming to camp, outside was just a place between the front door and the school bus. But here were kids going into great detail about how proud they were to have survived a night in the woods, even in the rain! All they had eaten for dinner was peanut butter crackers and raw marshmallows and yet they did not die! I wish you could have seen the pride on their faces as they talked to their parents; it was as if their worlds had split open and birthed new possibility.
I learned something important that day. The journey is far from perfect, and the results do not always measure up to expectations, but God is there!
Mary and Joseph spent days traveling to the temple for Passover, had survived the chaos of the experience, and now they trudged back down the mountain with their twelve-year-old son. Or so they thought. Jesus was missing. For three days, they panicked, looking everywhere.
They had no idea where he was.
Now, let me stop here briefly and say that it may surprise you to learn that preachers and Biblical scholars struggle with this story a lot, because it does not look like much else in scripture. I love this story because it is the only story in the whole Bible that tells of Jesus as a boy. Everywhere else, it goes from Jesus as a tiny baby to Jesus as a full-grown adult, as if he somehow escaped the curse of being a teenager. But Luke reminds us that Jesus really was fully human, and I just don’t know of any more maddeningly human time than the age of 12 or 13. I don’t know that Jesus would have fully appreciated the experience of being human if he had missed that wonderfully, horrifyingly awkward, holy time of life.
So he is twelve, not yet old enough to be off on his own, and he is lost for three days. Now, one reason biblical scholars don’t know what to do with this passage is that it just seems so strange to imagine a situation in which the son of God is lost for three days. It doesn’t really fit with the God we sing about in hymns, the immortal, invisible, God only wise.
So we do all sorts of things to try to make sense of this story. I’ve read all kinds of explanations. Oh, you know, he was lost for three days! And, it says later in Luke, on the third day he rose from the dead! This must be a story about the crucifixion and resurrection. Or, oh! Jesus was sitting with the teachers of the law! This must be a story about Jesus’s authority, that he can hold his own with the teachers! Or, look, of course he is in his father’s house! This is where he belongs, and where you should be too!
Just like we yearn for the perfect Christmas, we want to make this story into something clear and helpful. I mean, it is Jesus, and we are in church. It must all mean something.
Everybody wants this story to be about something, so I was delighted when I came across a video on the internet from a preacher in Minnesota who gave this story to a bunch of mothers, some of small children, some of grown, and said, “Tell me what you think.” That’s it. No theological magic tricks, no plucking meaning from thin air. Just tell me what you think. And to a person, they said some version of the same thing: this story is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. Losing track of a child for three days is one of the scariest things I can imagine.
And when you think about it that way, I am not really sure how to sanitize it. The story is terrifying. You can imagine Mary’s exasperation. I have no trouble imagining her tone of voice. I think it is pretty clear. Why have you done this to us? It is a mix of overwhelming relief and white-hot anger. And rather than apologizing, rather than using divine power to assuage her fears and calm her down, Jesus stokes his mother’s fire, saying something that simultaneously makes perfect sense in light of all we know Jesus to be but which, scripture tells us, his parents did not get. Did you not know that I would be in my father’s house? And they did not understand what he said to them, the writer says.
 And yet, though she did not understand, though she was terrified and furious and exhausted from the search, though this was not what she thought she’d signed up for, Mary treasured these things in her heart. Even in the midst of loss, even in family argument, even after days and days of travel, she found herself, once again, in the presence of God. Even at times when life became almost unbearably difficult--and, for Mary, at times, it did--she treasured all of this in her heart.
This is how God works: not in the perfect moments, because in the final analysis there is no such thing as a perfect moment. In God’s world, children get lost and are found, sons speak insolently to their parents, wizened old teachers learn from a twelve year old boy, our very savior is executed as a traitor. And, of course, God is born in a barn, among animals, among the smells of life, and while this might not be the most pleasant thing you can imagine, the smells of the manger are indeed the smells of life! They remind us that theology is lived, that the Gospel happens when we live it.  God was made flesh at Christmas and God continues to be made flesh through us.

So don’t worry if Christmas was not what you dreamed
For the promise of God is that life is redeemed
not a storybook life, or as told through a poem
nor as something that only can happen at home

but in real life, the real world, for Christ was made flesh.
Remember this next time you put out the crèche
for the smells that he smelled and the miles that he went
are the same smells, the same miles, the same hours we’ve spent.

Oh, the promise of Christmas is not about gifts
It’s that even in long-standing family rifts             
The God who has been at our side since the start
Still is with us. So go treasure THIS in your heart.

In the name of the one who creates you from dust
And the one who redeems you and leads you to trust
In the one who sustains you wherever you go

God is with us. Go tell everybody you know!

December 24 Sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: A New Way to Live

Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
Do not be afraid, she said.
I am bringing you good news of great joy, she said.
Riiiight. As if anything good ever happened in the field in the middle of the night. The shepherds were just doing their jobs, of course, trying to keep their sheep safe from wolves, and thieves, and the other things that lurk in the night, and suddenly, an angel appeared to them, shining like the sun in the middle of the night, telling them not to be afraid. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there. As if you could encounter an angel in the middle of the field and just be ok with it. As if nothing was out of the ordinary.
And then, of course, in the interest of helping the shepherds continue in their do-not-be-afraidness, just as soon as the angel has told them not to fear, a whole multitude of heavenly hosts appear in the field, singing and shining and if I’m a shepherd, I’m thinking to myself I probably ought to lay off late-night sips of whatever booze I’m drinking to help keep warm.
As if you can experience this sort of thing and not be afraid. As if you can come that close to being in the presence of God and not be completely and forever changed.
I don’t know about you, but while I have never had an angel appear to me while keeping watch over my flocks by night, I’ve experienced God. I’ve experienced God in kind words from others, in gifts that are beyond generous, in beautiful scenery, in a smile from my daughter, in an embrace from my spouse. I’ve seen people who have no real reason except for sheer trust in God sell just about everything they have and give the money to the poor. I’ve seen the church reach out to those who felt like they were excluded. I’ve seen the church reach out and embrace me. I may not have encountered a multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest, but I’ve seen God at work. It is a mystical thing, that kind of presence. It can leave you speechless, just devoid of any words that can do justice to the magnitude of the moment.
And so the shepherds faced the angel and said to themselves, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And they went and found Mary and Joseph and the Lord himself lying in a manger, and they told everybody within earshot what the angel had told them. And then they left, glorifying God and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
You know, I’ll be honest, there are days when I can be so fed up at the state of things that I feel like I could be right there with the shepherds, right smack dab in the middle of the story, and see the angel and greet the baby and then leave, glorifying God for a minute or two and then going back to the same humdrum way things always had been. That’s how it seems to work for me: see something amazing, get excited for a while, then get over it and go back to my everyday life, as if nothing had changed.
I know I am not alone in this. I’ve been around the church long enough to know that this is how we are, by and large. We experience the love of God and our faith heats up for a while, and then we encounter obstacles and the nonsense that sometimes accompanies church work, and the intensity cools, until it seems like just making it to church on Sunday morning is more energy than we can muster.
And yet the shepherds did not go back to their old ways. The Bible doesn’t suggest that they all became televangelists or anything, but after they encountered the Christ child, they went back, praising and glorifying God for all they had heard and seen. They saw the face of God and were different because of it. They had to journey to get there, and they had to leave their flocks for a time, but they chose to follow Jesus and they were different because of it!
This all leads me to ask you a personal question. Let’s just get down to it, because I know you’ve got reservations at Athens Pizza or places to go and people to see. How are we different because of our faith? Having seen what we have seen, having experienced God, how are we different? How are we following Jesus? Are we really following Jesus at all?
Imagine if we followed Jesus like the shepherds did, praising and glorifying God for all we have heard and seen. Imagine if we followed Jesus in such a way that meant that we really believe that what we do here on Sunday morning and what we do when we leave here really matters to God and to the world. What kind of purpose would we discover? What kind of blessing? What kind of grace?
I say we should give it a shot. Let’s follow, but let’s do it together, because that is what the church is about. Ours is a journey that starts in the field, right where we are, but it does not stay there, for we have experienced good news of great joy. Christ has been born. We have experienced the love that comes from God, the joy that comes from serving God and serving others. And if we leave that love right where we found it, what good is this whole church business anyhow?
The journey starts in the field, but where it ends, I can’t say, for when you follow Jesus, all bets are off. There’s no telling where we will end up.
That’s a scary proposition of course. I don’t like going on trips without an idea of where I’ll end up, but then again, the uncertainty is no reason not to try, for there is no telling what adventures we’ll embark on, no telling where we’ll end up, together.
Let’s make 2014 the Year of Following Jesus, just to see what will happen. Let’s talk about Jesus in worship, let’s think about Jesus as we serve God through serving others, let’s ask Jesus for help when we are tired. I want us to even try to think like Jesus in committee meetings, although I am a little worried about what that means for our committees. Let’s see, together, what happens when we meet God, face to face. I hope that if this is your first time here at North Decatur, you’ll join us on the journey, for there’s no better place to start than at the beginning.
Now, it would be silly to begin a journey without preparing. So let’s prepare the way. You got two postcards in your bulletin today. One of them is for you to keep as a reminder of your call to follow Jesus. The other is stamped. Spend the next few days thinking of who needs that invitation—who ought to be a fellow traveler on this journey of faith. Who needs the encouragement, who needs the love, who needs the prodding it takes to get up off the couch and really follow? That’s the person I want you to send the postcard to.
Sign it, don’t sign it, it doesn’t matter, but do send it, because I believe that there is something special happening here, at North Decatur United Methodist Church. And keeping it to ourselves doesn’t do justice to the ways that God is being made known here, in this place.
Now, a postcard is no substitute for the journey. You can’t follow Jesus via correspondence course. But it’s a start. It’s a start.

I am convinced that if we stick together on this—if we really spend a whole year really trying to follow Jesus—not the fake Jesus we see on TV, nor the white Jesus, nor the sanitized Jesus we sometimes like to talk about—but the real Jesus we read about in the Bible, if we actually live like we mean it when we say that Jesus is the one we are following, we’re going to find ourselves returning to where we started, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it has been told to us. And who knows, our encounter with God may be so profound and we may be so unable to keep our mouths shut about it that people may still be talking about it, two thousand years later. Dear God, let it be. Amen.

Monday, December 23, 2013

December 22 Sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: Presence

Matthew 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.


Allow me to present to you a list of all the things we know about Joseph, the father of Jesus.

1.      He was descended from King David, although the Gospel writers disagree about how you get from David to Joseph, so while we know he was a descendant of David, we do not know how.
2.      He was from Nazareth or Bethlehem. Luke says Joseph was from Nazareth. Matthew says Joseph was from Bethlehem. So while we know he was from one of these places, we do not know which.
3.      He took his family from Bethlehem to Egypt during King Herod’s attempt to slaughter the young man in Bethlehem who might challenge Herod’s throne as the new King of the Jews. How long he was there, where he lived, what he did, we do not know.
4.      At least three times, an angel appeared to him in a dream. The second two times were to send him to Egypt and to recall him to Israel, and the first was to tell him to continue with his plans to marry his fiancée, even though she was pregnant, even though he knew what they had done and, more importantly, what they had not done, even though nobody would believe the ridiculous story about the virgin and the holy spirit and the angel and the dream. What he thought when he heard this news, we do not know, but I think it is safe to say he was not exactly giddy at the prospect of being subject to this kind of ridicule.
5.      He was some sort of carpenter or mason.

Thus ends the reading. This is all we know. That’s it. And, you know, you think about the nativity scene, maybe you have a manger scene set up in your living room, and I’d say it is likely that if there’s a piece missing, it is Joseph. We talk about Joseph as if he’s an important part of the nativity story, of the birth of Jesus, but we know very little. We don’t know about his childhood, nor how he died, nor how long he lived, nor what he looked like, nothing.
As the father of a young child, I don’t much like this, for I have done my share of 3 am feedings and diaper changes. I certainly don’t feel like a prop in the story of my child, the most frequently missing piece, like where you pull the shepherd over and set him by Mary and hope nobody will notice. As a father, I don’t much like this.
But as a Christian, well, as a Christian I understand loss at Christmas more than I understand most things. If Joseph is missing in the nativity, there are others missing around my tree this year as well, and it’s hard. This may be the most wonderful time of the year, but some days I just wish it would end already, I wish December 26th would roll around so I could put the nativity away, pack up the tree and take it up to the attic with the rest of the difficult feelings that come up this time of year.
It can be heartbreaking, this time of year, as we remember those who are missing, who have died, who have moved away or who are, for whatever reason, no longer here. I don’t mean to dwell on it, but I do think it is an important dynamic to acknowledge. In one of the cruelest pieces of the human experience, it turns out that it is precisely the time in which we are supposed to be doing the most rejoicing that we can feel the most despair.
Why, it is almost as if you were preparing for your own wedding and discovered, at the last minute, that your beloved had been with somebody else, almost as if she were pregnant and the baby was not yours. It sounds like something off of Maury Povich just as much as it sounds like something out of the Bible, but this is the story of your savior and mine, and it helps to know that Joseph wasn’t exactly rejoicing in this season.
Instead of coming with balloons and cigars, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Maybe this does not sound like such a big deal, quietly dismissing your fiancée when you discover that she is pregnant. And maybe it says something about Joseph’s character, but it is not as easy as it sounds. You couldn’t just break off an engagement by giving the ring back and deciding who got to keep the dog. You couldn’t just call Georgia’s divorce specialists and claim irreconcilable differences. The marriage process in Joseph and Mary’s day was such that being engaged was a public thing, a legal arrangement, and so making the decision to call off the wedding probably deserves more than just two verses in the Bible. This was agonizing stuff, and it involved courts and religious figures and family and all the rest. It was not so simple as dismissing her quietly. It was a big deal.
Imagine trying to navigate all of that, trying to figure out how to go forward with such grief, and not being able to just say “forget it” and moving on, but having to go through the complex legal process of ending the engagement. I am reminded of what sometimes happens when we lose a loved one, as we gather the family to share the news, as we call the lawyer and search for the will and go to the bank. The loss is enough, but then there is still work to do. And it is not long before you start to wonder just how much is piled up for you, just how long this sort of thing can go on before you lose it, before you break, before you split right in two.
It is a lot, this sort of loss, and so the biggest surprise to me in Joseph’s story is not that he was so gracious, nor that an angel came, nor that we seem to know so little about him. The biggest surprise to me in Joseph’s story was that he was able to fall asleep in the first place, which is, of course, a necessary step if one is to receive a vision from God in a dream. I can barely imagine the thoughts that were going through his head, the demons that plagued him at night, the “what-ifs” and the doubts. It is enough to keep you up all of Advent, and once he finally fell asleep, Joseph found himself in the presence of God.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve got to experience pain in order to find yourself in the presence of God, and I don’t mean to suggest that God causes bad things, but I have to imagine that the pain is not incidental, for it reminds us that we need God and we need each other. I’ve had the opportunity to be in ministry in rich places and in poor, and the thing that always surprises me is the level to which people give financial support to the church. You might think that it is much easier to raise money in an environment with a lot of money, but it is true that you don’t get rich by giving your money away. The percentage of giving in a poorer community is much higher than it is in a wealthier community. And it is likewise the case that frequently, those who do not think they need help from God rely more on themselves than they do on God, than they do on the church. That isn’t to say that those folks don’t experience deep pain; it is to say that when they do experience it, they seem to look for immediate ways out, for opportunities to make the pain go away so that they don’t have to feel it anymore, rather than stepping back and asking in a pained voice, what is it about me and my life that is keeping me away from God? For when we rely upon ourselves, when the first thought we go to when we experience pain is what can I do to make the pain go away, well, there’s just no room. There’s no room, no perceived need, no recognition that it is not so much about me as it about God, and so I’d better take this opportunity and seek God’s presence in my life.
And my goodness, Joseph was in pain. The life he’d planned with Mary was dead on arrival, the dreams he’d dreamed were null and void, and not only did he have to deal with that grief, but everybody was talking about him. Maybe he wasn’t man enough for Mary. Maybe it was his fault. Maybe, maybe, maybe, all the maybes shot through him like bullets in the night.
This is the person to whom God showed up. This is the time in which God’s presence was made known. Not in the mountaintop experience, not in the great joy of a new marriage, but in pain, in sorrow, in loss. This is the time in which an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Do not be afraid to show your face in public. Do not be afraid to live out a life much different than you dreamed it would be. God is in it. And just to remind you when you have doubts, just to sustain you in those difficult days of being a teenage father, of delivering your own child in the cold in a barn, he shall be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”
This is how the birth of Jesus is told in the Gospel of Matthew: in a time of pain, in a time of doubt, in a dark time, in the middle of the night.
I think it is fortuitous that the story of Joseph in the Lectionary comes the day after the Winter Solstice. Did you know that last night was the longest night of the year? I bet even if you didn’t know it, you knew it. It has been dark in Georgia. The cold and the clouds have kept out the usual warmth we feel, and it seems like the weather isn’t the whole issue. We walk around tired, and sad, and frustrated, during the very time that we are supposed to be rejoicing.
I am a person who is very sensitive to light, to weather, so I always find myself down in the dumps in December, because not only am I mourning the loss of those who used to gather around the tree, but I find myself not getting enough light, not having enough energy, and it can make you just want to give up.
Only, this is the time in which God shows up. It the heartbreak. When you think all is lost, when the marriage is over, when the person has died, when everything you thought you knew about life turns out to ignite like so much gunpowder.
In the midst of that sorrow—and nobody’s immune from it—in the midst of that sorrow, God shows up. You live through the holidays with their saccharine-sweet music and decorations, just wanting it to be over, and you wake up on Christmas morning and even though you didn’t think it could happen again, Christ has been born. A savior has come to us, and he shall be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Not God is sometimes with us, nor it feels like God is with us, but God. Is. With. Us. Always.
Hold onto that when you find yourself experiencing a dark night of the soul. For while it is true that we have just experienced the longest night of the year, it is likewise true that every night, from here on out, gets shorter and shorter. It is likewise true that God is with us, even, you know, at Christmas. Even at Christmas.

Monday, December 9, 2013

December 8 Sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: Repentance

(To hear a recorded version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Matthew 3:1-12
 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

(This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
I have told you that this sermon is about “the gift of repentance,” which probably sounds like it ranks right up there with the gift of hold music or the gift of kidney stones on the list of bad sermon titles. Repentance, after all, is not a word we use in everyday conversation, and it’s certainly not a word we think of fondly. I don’t know about you, but the word “repent” places an image in my mind of the Westboro Baptist Church, that contemptible organization that is, of course, neither truly Baptist nor actually anything resembling a church. We do not have such a positive view of repentance, because, it seems, the place we most often encounter the word is on picket signs, or screamed through the megaphone of an angry street preacher.
Of course, I don’t know how much you know about the one we call John the Baptist, but he’s probably as close to an angry street preacher as you’ll find in all the Bible. Here’s a guy who lives out in the wilderness, who wears camel’s hair for clothes, which is about as fashionable and comfortable as you might imagine, and eats wild honey and bugs for lunch: not exactly the kind of person you want the bishop to appoint to your church. And he wandered all over Judea yelling the same kinds of things you’d see from a street preacher with a megaphone. Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near. Prepare the way of the Lord. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourself, ‘I have been in the church all my life. I’m a Methodist, my parents were Methodists, and their parents were Methodists.’ For anyone who does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but I think it is close enough.
It sounds just as weird today as it did back then, this business of repentance. And--I’ve thought about this a lot--do you want to know what I think it is that this rubs us the wrong way? I don’t think it is the Westboro Baptist Church at all. I think it is us. I think we are the reason this sounds weird, because we do not like people telling us to repent, to change. I am the one who is supposed to be in charge of me, and I am supposed to be who I am, not some manufactured version of myself, so when we hear a voice in the wilderness telling us to repent, we thank God he’s wearing camel’s hair and eating bugs so we can write him off as one of those sign-carrying members of the lunatic fringe.
But sometimes, sometimes the unexpected one ends up being the prophetic one. The crackpot in the garage across the street invents some revolutionary gadget. The young coach makes the right call. The recluse writes a masterpiece. And yet, we write them off as lunatics because we don’t like to be told to change.
I got to thinking this week about how we understand ourselves, the things that entertain us and help us better understand the story of all of our lives. And so I started to wonder about my favorite tv shows, particularly about whether the characters change.  I seem to be so resistant to it, we all seem to be so resistant, that I sort of wondered if that resistance is reflected in the things I watch on TV.
I thought about the Walking Dead, which is one of my favorite shows. This is the story of a bunch of people trying to figure out how to survive after something of a zombie apocalypse, and the show is nothing BUT change, full of characters figuring out what life means and how to keep going.
I thought about Mad Men, another one of my favorites, the story of a Madison Avenue advertising executive in the 1960’s whose life changes with the growth of his family and his business and the changing times.
I thought about Downton Abbey and Modern Family. I even thought about Duck Dynasty, the reality show about a bunch of Louisiana rednecks who make millions off a revolutionary duck call, and who have to figure out how to make it as a business and a family with such great success.
We would never take seriously a show about characters that don't change, and yet this is what we expect of our own lives. We go around announcing that we are we are and you should just deal with it, as if this is a badge, something to be proud of that proves that we are strong enough people that we do not need to change
I may be so stubborn that I tell everybody, well, I just am who I am, but for somebody who is so resistant to changing myself, I sure am entertained by stories of change, of people changing, of people saying “my own way is not working. I should prepare a new one.”
There’s something there, of course. There’s something there about how I understand my own story, something about being drawn to stories of change. I may put on a façade of having it all together—we all might do this—or at least a façade of having a sure sense of myself, but there is a part of me, buried perhaps, but there, that continually whispers “change.” There is something there that hears truth when John the Baptist says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Prepare the way of the Lord.”
The hard thing is that it’s not like you just repent of your sin and then move on. That is not how repentance works, and it is not how sin works, for sin is not just about the things we ought not do. I know, for instance, that I should not steal. That is one thing. But sin is much larger than this, for it is my sin that makes me want to steal in the first place. So those feelings of jealousy, of inadequacy—they come from sin as much as they are sin, come to fruition. It is from this sin that we are called to repent.
And so repentance is not a one-time action. Yes, it happens when we acknowledge that our salvation comes from somewhere beyond ourselves, when we accept the promises of Christ. This is what repentance is: acknowledging that we screw up, that we sin, and that God’s love is greater than our sin. But repentance is not a one-time event. It is not chained to a moment in time. Repentance is a continual process, a way of living, for we are preparing the way of the Lord who is also unbound by time, who is always coming. So we must always be preparing, always repenting, always making room in our hearts for Christ. It is the moment we stop preparing that the other stuff of life—the greed, the feelings of inadequacy, the jealousy, and especially, the ridiculous notion that we have it all together—it is the moment we stop repenting that these things take over and crowd out the space in your heart that you have prepared for Christmas.
Let me share a very personal example, as I reflect upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. I think we would all agree that racism is a sin. And yet it is not so simple as saying, “I repent and no longer need to worry about racism,” for I have never, not once, encountered someone who was speaking from a perspective tainted by racism who would acknowledge that they were being racist. How many times have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .”
This is how sin works. The sin of racism is something from which we should repent, but it cannot be overcome in a moment. It requires a lifetime of repentance, a lifetime of acknowledging the ways in which we participate in structures that are racist and that racism still colors our hearts.
At least, that has been my experience, for racism is a sin from which I am not immune. You should know some of my history, which is that my parents hired a woman named Rebecca before I was born, and she worked for my family through my time in high school. Rebecca was an African-American woman who was sort of a housekeeper but more of a nanny. I probably spent more time with her growing up than I did my own parents, and I loved her like my own mother. I spent time among her family, in her home, in her church, and so you would think that, as many politicians are fond of saying, I do not have a racist bone in my body. But I do. In fact, I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t, because sin is not simply the conscious doing of bad things. It is broken relationship. It is embedded in the systems that are part of our lives. It taints your heart if you are not on constant guard against it.
You would think, perhaps, that racism is not something I struggle with, something from which I need to repent, even now. But it is. I find myself wanting to lock my car door when driving through certain neighborhoods. I find myself noticing some people and somehow missing others, as if they were invisible, as if they weren’t made in the same image of God that I was made in. I don’t use racist language. I don't hate people. The sin of racism is much more subtle and insidious than that.
I don’t mean to dump. I just mean to say that repentance is not a one-time thing. I’ve repented of my sin many times, and yet if I do not live in a constant state of repentance, I can look into my heart and find that corrosion has started to invade the space I’ve meant to leave for my savior, for love, for Christmas. Maybe this is a scandalous admission from the one wearing the robe and the stole. But to be human is to struggle with racism. To be alive is to struggle with sin. And to be Christian is to be in a state of continual repentance.
And in the midst of all of this, we are giving thanks this week for the life of Nelson Mandela, who famously said this: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
This is how sin works. It imprisons us, it takes up all the available room in our hearts unless we are in a constant state of repentance. And yet, it turns out, that it is not so easy as leaving the bitterness locked up with your past, for while Mandela offered a public face to truth and reconciliation, the truth is that he struggled with bitterness his whole life. He told the journalist who helped him with his autobiography that he stayed angry about having lost the prime years of his life--he never really got over it--and yet his whole life was repentance: his public statements, his presidency, his establishment of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa that led to more racial progress than any other program in our time.
The man that the world remembers this week never did get to a place where his repentance was over and done. He struggled with racism—warranted, perhaps, but racism nonetheless—his entire life. But thank God for his continual repentance, not merely a private act of contrition but public acts of grace and forgiveness. Thank God for his continual repentance, for not only did he work towards healing a broken nation, but he made room in his own heart for love. The bitterness did not take over. The sin did not take up all the room in his heart.
I’ll end with this. I will acknowledge that this kind of example probably isn’t all that helpful. I’m no Mandela. You probably aren’t either. When we die, we’ll be well-remembered, but the President won’t make a statement. There will be no state funeral.
But, thank goodness, this isn’t the standard we’re called to. We’re just called to follow Jesus: to love, to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord, to make room. And so this Advent and Christmas season, I can’t get John’s voice out of my head, proclaiming good news through a megaphone, telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. And I can’t get the Gospel writer’s voice out of my head, asking this question: “if the mother of God came knocking at the door of your heart, if she were looking for a place to give birth to the Christ child, would there be room? Would there be room?”

Monday, December 2, 2013

December 1 Sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: Watchfulness

Matthew 24:36-44
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I met one of my dearest friends for lunch on Tuesday in Cartersville, which means that I spent much of the day Tuesday driving in the blinding rain, trying not to die. It is stressful, navigating through that kind of weather, with eighteen wheelers weaving in and out of their lanes, poorly lit road signs and streets filled with other flustered drivers. It’s enough to get you so worked up that you can’t focus upon anything other than your own predicament, that which is happening inside your own head.
And it was on the way home that I turned the radio to NPR, as is my habit, hoping for some peaceful music to calm my frayed nerves. The host of the program announced that the next song would be a piano piece by Franz Liszt entitled “Transcendental Etude Number 5,” which he described as one of the fastest-paced and most difficult pieces in all of classical music. I would only add that it is also one of the most stressful. As the pianist played notes all over the keyboard, it was all I could do to keep from driving all over the road.
I’d have reached for the radio dial to change it, but for the fact that the only things keeping me alive were my eyes glued to the road, and fortunately Transcendental Etude Number 5 was a short piece, and the announcer began to introduce the next song, a Scottish ballad called “Lament for Mulroy.”
And I have to tell you, I’m a little embarrassed by this, because it shouldn’t be so, but as the song started, and as the violin began to play, it was if I had never heard beauty before this moment. It was as if the violinist were magic, as if he were making the instrument make sounds ten times more beautiful than anything I’d ever heard before.
Here, I was stuck on myself and my own predicament, pinned down in the driver’s seat, and it was as if the fullness of God’s love came through the radio, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: such beauty, such art. That kind of thing will grab hold of your heart, if you’ll let it. It’s enough to lift you out of your seat and pull you straight into the presence of God.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself pulled into the presence of God? Is there something in your life, a piece of music, a memory, something to remind you that God is with us?
I had the opportunity to visit France for the first time about ten years ago. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to visit Paris, but it is gorgeous, of course, and full of history. I did the usual tourist thing, looking through museums and visiting the regular sites. And I spent much of one day at the Louvre, which of course is the grand Museum of Paris. They say that if you spend eight seconds looking at each of the pieces in the Louvre, you will be there for some number of decades. It is full of precious art.
After I toured the Louvre, almost as an afterthought, I went to visit the Musee de Orsay, which is a museum nearby, much smaller than the Louvre, but filled with Impressionist pieces. I'm not much of an art historian and so I don’t feel strongly about much art, but I have never much been moved by Impressionism, by folks like van Gogh and Manet. And so I was almost rushing through the museum, because I had been to the Louvre already so there wasn't much here to move me. But I'll never forget coming up an escalator at the Musee de Orsay and being greeted by what has become my reminder.
There, on the wall, was a painting that nobody seemed to care much about, but it grabbed ahold of me and wouldn’t let me go. It was called the Floor Scrapers by the otherwise forgettable Impresisonist artist Gustave Caillebotte. He was more famous for collecting other arists’ work than creating his own, and yet, on a wall in the Musee de Orsay, I found my reminder that God breaks through the work of even the most pedestrian of artists, that Christ is continually born anew, and that God is with us. I don’t know why that painting grabbed me, but it did, and it holds my heart, still. That kind of beauty grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go, and if you aren’t careful, you know, if you don’t fill your days with meaningless tasks and your life with an abundance of possessions, you may find yourself in the predicament of constantly watching for God. Thankfully, I’m pretty busy, so I don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. I have tasks and possessions aplenty. That’s a lot for God to break through, and thank goodness, you know, because that’s a pretty hefty responsibility, to constantly find yourself in the presence of God.
But, even still, I crave it. I crave that presence. Do you?
A few years ago, I was craving that feeling so bad that I decided to go to Uganda. My wife and I were kicking around places to lead our next mission trip, and we decided that our plates were so full, that we were so stuck on our own stuff, that it was time to do something radical about it. So we gathered the troops and did the work of preparing for a mission trip to Uganda, to a school outside Kampala called the Humble School, a place for children whose lives had been affected by HIV/AIDS and poverty, a place where many children had no parents.
It was a marvelous, difficult, beautiful, life-giving trip. Oh, how we were blessed, as we played with the children who lived at that school, as we heard their heartbreaking stories of illness and loss, as we played soccer with them and as we let them play with our cameras. One day of our trip was a national holiday—International Women’s Day, which we ought to celebrate here, if you ask me—but it was a holiday, so there was no class. The teachers came down to help us move bricks at the dormitory we were building, fireman style, with a chain of people tossing bricks, one after another, until the entire pile had been moved. The teachers came to help, and the children followed, because they stood to benefit from the building of the dorm, and they wanted to help in whatever small way they could. So the children who were strong enough and the teachers intermingled with the mission team, and for an hour or so the kingdom of God was present on earth, passing those bricks, one after another, learning one another’s work songs, tossing bricks down the line. And I got so into the work that I almost didn’t notice that behind us, in a smaller line, there stood a group of small children, too small to pass the heavy bricks, but wanting to help. These small children found a small pile of pebbles, and they stood behind us, lined up, about 10 of them, taking a pebble from the pile, passing it along, passing it down, until they reached the end of the line where they would pile them up.
Watching that, watching God break through time and space and show up like that, it was Christmas all over again, not the kind of Christmas that is full of wrapping paper and candy, but the kind of Christmas that involves a birth, an inbreaking of the divine into our lives, a reminder that God is with us, even when we forget to look.
It was Christmas, even without the perfect tree, or the perfect gift, or the perfect family, and it is no surprise, really, because I’ve found that the pursuit of the perfect Christmas is MUCH more about me than it is about Jesus, because the first Christmas, of course, was anything but perfect. It’s almost cliché to talk about it this way, but that’s just because we’re so resistant to the truth of the Christmas story that we call it cliché so that the truth leaves us alone. And yet it is the case that the first Christmas happened in the cold, outside, in a barn, with an unwed mother and a child who was born among animals and placed in a feed trough to sleep. The beauty of that scene cannot be replicated in a plastic trinket from Big Lots. It cannot be contained in our own traditions, especially when they distract us from that which we are allegedly celebrating. The beauty of the nativity is the kind of beauty that comes when you look for it, or, if you are lucky, the kind of beauty that comes to you on a cold, rainy day, the kind of beauty that hits you like a ton of bricks and reminds you of something greater, something more real than your own problems, your own issues, your own baggage you bring with you to the holidays.
It’s the kind of beauty that will break through occasionally, merely because it’s more powerful than any of the rest of the things with which we fill our days. But if you don’t look for it, it will be relegated to an occasional thing, a periodic “aha” moment that leaves as fast as it comes. But if you watch, if you keep awake, you will find your life awash in beauty, for you will notice God.
Now, the thing about noticing God is that it is really hard to do when neon “sale” signs are flashing in your eyes, when the first thing I see in the morning when I open my email is a list of the incredible deals that could be mine if the price is right. It is really hard to do when you are busy making your home perfect, absolutely perfect, unfailingly perfect. Noticing God is really hard to do—borderline impossible—when you’re working harder to make more money or spinning your wheels to find the perfect gift, as if the perfect gift is what brings happiness. None of these things are the places you’ll find God; in fact, these things may well be the exact opposite of Christmas, for they are things that exist to keep you from noticing.
It ought not require a near-death driving experience, or a trip to Paris, or a week in Uganda. It ought to happen right here, right now, and in all the right heres and right nows of life, for the promise of Christmas is that God is with us, always! How dare we only notice when it is convenient for us, especially in a season that is dedicated to the birth of Jesus Christ. Rather than watching out for God in our everyday lives,, we act as if Jesus spent the month of December celebrating my birthday and that I ought to celebrate me, too.
It is one of the gifts Christmas gives that even in the midst of everything with which I fill my life, all the things I use to make me feel like a full, contented person, even in the midst of that, God breaks through. And when that happens I am reminded that it is not my own fulfillment I should be looking for. I should be looking for God rather than looking to fulfill myself. I should be looking  for those times in which God is at work, because keeping watch is infinitely more life-giving than staring at my own navel.
So, in this season, keep watch. Be ready. Be on the lookout for Christmas, for Christ to be born again in you. Even in the midst of the holiday rush, do not let yourself be persuaded that this is all about decorating the house or finding that perfect gift. Don’t believe it when you see the sign in WalMart advertising that you can get More Christmas For Your Money. Christmas doesn’t cost money. It just requires opening your eyes to the birth of Jesus all around you.

So keep watch, for just as the great flood in Noah’s day surprised those who were similarly distracted , so, too, will God break through the veil between heaven and earth, and we will find ourselves surrounded in love. So, too, will God arrive, if not because of our preparations, then in spite of them. And yet, God is already here. So keep watch, keep watch.