“Emmanuel Any-ways”; John 1:1-14 and Isaiah 52:7-10; December 24, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Emmanuel Any-ways”
John 1:1-14 and Isaiah 52:7-10
December 24, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

There’s lots of talk every Advent season of keeping Christ in Christmas or reclaiming the meaning of Christmas. Goodness knows, I have preached a Christmas sermon or two about that. 

But something that revolutionized my thinking this past week was reading United Church of Christ pastor, Quinn Calldwell‘s All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. He writes about how often the Christmas of secular culture and the Christmas of Christ are pitted against one another and how it’s a false dichotomy, because God’s presence is not limited in that way.

He writes, “Mightn’t God be powerful enough to co-opt the culture’s co-optation of the day of [Christ’s] birth? I think God can work with the traditions we hand to God.” He continues with some examples, “here are some Christmas things that have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, but in which I believe God is at work anyway:

  • Elvis’ Christmas Album. If it can make my whole family sing together while performing a complex operation involving a saw, a tree, a small living room, electricity, and water without us killing one another, it’s holy.”
  • “Shopping,” he writes, “yes, it can get out of hand, but searching for a great gift to make someone happy can be a profound experience.”

When it comes to keeping Christmas about Christ there are two things that are contradictorily simultaneously true: Jesus needs us to be God’s hands and feet in this world working to point to his birth, death, and resurrection AND Jesus is going to come no matter what we’ve done or left undone, whether we focus our entire celebrations on Jesus’ birthday or whether we’ve spent all of our time watching the Hallmark channel and shopping. And I mean that genuinely, goodness knows I love those Hallmark channel movies and shopping to get the perfect gift for those I love . Every bit of this season can be holy if our celebrations are done with genuine love and we are open to seeing God revealed in our midst.

Very similarly, God comes into this world in Jesus as fully God and fully human. Both things at the exact same time. God didn’t manifest as some entirely different creature than us, because God’s intent was to be in relationship with humankind. 

And so, with God in Jesus Christ as our example, we can experience the divine in that which seems worldly. We can sing God’s praises in the beauty of Letting it Snow. We can be reminded of the one who separated dark from night as we marvel at the simple beauty of Christmas lights. We can bask in the joy of creation in making snowmen on our lawns. We can share table fellowship with friends and family with gingerbread and hot chocolate. We can remember the boundlessness of God’s generosity in the generosity of a jolly man in a red suit. 

God’s presence is not limited to the places where we extend God an invitation. It is the gospel truth that, as our reading today said, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Everything begins as God’s creation and is saved by Christ’s redemption. There is no where that God cannot be found.

There’s also been some balking at the broad use of the words “happy holidays,” but do you know the origin of that? It’s “holy days.” If someone’s wish for me is to have more happy holy days, I am all for it. God’s holiness is certainly not constrained to one day in this season or to the activities that happen within the walls of churches.

And so I ask you, and I genuinely would love to hear your own examples,  what experiences of this season have made it holy to you? Where are the places  that God has invited God’s self into your celebrations? Feel free to offer a story or even just a phrase:

I’ll share some of my own as you think of yours:

  • The Christmas Carol (even the Muppet version) causes me to reflect on my actions towards others and makes me want to display more of Christ’s generosity.
  • I am reminded of the divinity of the baby Jesus, when I watch Leah laugh and reminded of the humanity of the baby Jesus when I change her diapers.
  • James Taylor singing, “River,” reminds me of the bittersweetness of this season for so many and the way that as a community of faith carry one another and believe on each other’s behalf when we can’t connect with the story Christ’s birth on our own.

What about for you? How have you unexpectedly experienced God in this season?

God will use whatever we offer, but also, and this part often gets overlooked, God will be present in this Holy Day no matter what. And that is very good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Home by Another Way; Matthew 2:1-12; January 3, 2016; FPC Holt

Home by Another Way
Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

SLIDE 1 - Family PictureLast Sunday a few of you met my aunt Karen, as she came up here for worship. On Monday she was to head back to her home in Plano, TX, via the Detroit airport. SLIDE 2 - Airplane in ShowWell if you’ll remember Monday’s weather, that was when the ice storm was hitting Michigan while Texas was recovering from tornadoes and getting hit by snow. My aunt went up to Detroit in the hopes that her flight would take off as planned. Everything seemed to be going smoothly up until a few minutes before the flight, when they shared the news that their flight crew did not make their flight in from Chicago. Not too long after the flight was cancelled. After standing in line for several hours to get her bags and trying to get a new flight she learned they didn’t have anything available till Thursday. She decided to go to a hotel for the night, but after trying six different hotels, none had any room, she rented a car and drove back to Toledo. Hoping to get home sooner than Thursday so as to not leave her shift uncovered as a neonatal nurse practitioner, she called the airline and saw what airports had any flights available, and ended up finally flying out of St Louis on Wednesday, connecting in Charlotte, NC and finally heading to Dallas.

SLIDE 3 - Bethlehem Inn

 In our scripture today we hear a story not entirely dissimilar from the travel woes my aunt experienced. We’ve all heard the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus’ fateful delivery in a manger after there was no room at the inn. SLIDE 4 - Wise MenBut we rarely pay quite as much attention to the latter half of the journey, when they are told by the wise men to travel home by another way. The trip there was already difficult, so to take the long way home was likely a tremendous inconvenience, and then added onto it the reason why they needed to go this way it must’ve been a very frightful situation. More frightful even than flooding and ice blizzards.

SLIDE 5 - HerodWhen the wise men first met with Herod they were meeting with him in the hopes of getting direction, perhaps even to placate him in his own authority. Herod even tried to make the wise men believe that he too wanted to come pay homage to Jesus, but things were not as they seemed. The reason why they needed to take this long way home was the wise men had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was fearful of what a king of the Jews would do to his power.

SLIDE 6 - Return Trip Joseph too is visited by an angel in a dream who says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” This was not an idle threat. In the verses following our passage today we are told, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” New parents as they were, I can’t imagine the horror that Mary and Joseph felt at hearing of so many children’s death due to their actions, and the simultaneous relief for their own son’s safety.  The divine rerouting of this dream altered the course of history, saving Jesus to live into adulthood.

The great modern theologian, James Taylor summarizes the story in this way: He writes, “Steer  clear of royal welcomes, avoid a big to-do.  A king who  would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you … Time to go home another way.  Home by another way … Me and you can be  wise guys too and go home by another way … We got this  far to a lucky star but tomorrow is  another day.  We can make it another way …”

SLIDE 7 - PathWhat are your own stories of a divine rerouting? A time in your life when you thought you knew the path ahead of you, maybe you even had a boarding pass in hand ready for a specific trip, or for a specific educational path, relationship, or career. When those things we’ve planned for change it’s hard to know what to do next. Often in the moment being rerouted does not feel divine at all, rather it feels much more like being inconvenienced, or worse, being misled.

The Bible has many examples of this divine rerouting. Jonah thought he had things all figured out when God told him to go to Nineveh, when he resisted God went as far as scooping him up in a big fish to get him turned in the right direction. Joseph, son of Jacob, is deceived by his brothers, thrown in a well, and unjustly imprisoned, but he ends up becoming a trusted advisor to the king in the midst of drought and famine.  In their exodus, the Israelites thought that praying to an idol would get them out of the wilderness, but Moses showed them that they would only survive by God’s provision of manna and quail. Ruth thought she knew what lay ahead of her, marrying into a good family, but then her husband, brother in law and father in law all died in quick succession and she and her mother in law Naomi were able to find a way forward by staying close to one another. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the son thought he had everything figured out of how he would be happy in life, but in humility he ends up returning home and is joyfully received.

SLIDE 13 - Five Stories It doesn’t feel good to be inside of a fish, betrayed by your family, reprimanded by a tablet wielding Moses, encounter a succession of tragic deaths, or slinking home after squandering the family fortune, but God shows us over and over again, that in seeking God’s guidance we are able to make it home again, home to God’s will for us, which may look nothing like where we started. As Joseph says when he forgives his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” To be clear, I am not saying that God causes the harm, but rather that God can work through our adversity for good.

SLIDE 14 - Mary and JosephMary and Joseph also had plans for what their lives would look like. They were engaged to be married, had lived piously and now their lives were uprooted by a pregnancy that was hard to explain to their families or community. But God had revealed to them that Mary would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and bring Jesus, the very son of God into the world. This change from what they thought they wanted changed their lives and the entire world for the better.

SLIDE 15 - Cradle to Cross This child, come into the world through difficult and extraordinary circumstances provided the divine rerouting that changed all of us. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for all of our sins, and was resurrected so that all of us may experience eternal life. Jesus made it possible for every one of us to go home by another way.

We don’t know all that  awaits us on the path in front of us, we don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but if we keep our eyes and ears open to God’s direction, we can have hope that even the long way will lead us home in the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.