Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

Mary Magdalene at the The Cross/The Tree of Jesus

Easter Sunday sermon:  The scriptures are embedded in the text, but I would also like to share that I am sharing some of the music from Jesus Christ Superstar during the service, also.  Please listen to Mary Magdalene’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the final song, “Jesus Christ Superstar” at its inclusion.  I was fortunate to see the Broadway production in 1972 with my high school classmates on our senior trip.  The fact that it is going to be a live performance this Easter Sunday on NBC will be a dramatic ending to this Easter Sunday.  

Let me introduce you to Mary of Magdala.  Her image is the final one in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window.  She is sitting on a stone, weeping and alone—at least the artist has her pictured this way in the window.

The trial and the crucifixion is over and the very same people who were standing along the road cheering as Jesus arrived on a donkey one week earlier are now in hiding.  Mary of Magdala is not.

Mary stayed beside Jesus as he hung on the cross and died. Joseph of Arimathea takes the body and places it in his personal tomb late Friday just before Sabbath began. The first opportunity Mary and a few other women have to complete the burial practice was Sunday morning:

It was customary to wash the body and anoint it with perfumes and spices, not ever for embalming but always to control the odors. . . . The hands and feet were wrapped with linen clothes (grave-bands), and the face and head were covered with a small cloth and bound.  It was loving friends and relatives, mostly women, who prepared the body.  The Jews did not use coffins and did not embalm. [Accessed on 3-29-18 at http://www.bible-history.com/backd2/burial.html.]

 

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary of Magdala is first introduced by Luke earlier in the story of Jesus’ ministry found in Luke 8:1-3:

Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.

 

This introduction immediately follows the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet while at a dinner with the Pharisees.

But who is this Mary and why did she stay beside Jesus only to be the one who witnessed and recognized his resurrection first?

Research shares insight into the character Mary Magdalene, but the reality of this woman cannot be definitively identified with factual details.  The possibility of her relationship with Jesus being more than a disciple is the subject of movies.  The research cannot refute it, but the fact does not change the importance of Luke’s and John’s reporting of her presence at the resurrection.  And, if the possibility of the intimate relationship with Jesus is true, the morning of the Resurrection may actually be more believable.

The Gospel of John reports the morning’s events to the earliest Christians:

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

     Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

     11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in.12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

      14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary came from the city of Magdala, a trade center, and probably was a successful businesswoman in the textile industry. She was afflicted with seven demons according to the scripture.  The story does not explain, but you know the demons that can cause one to lose focus. Maybe she was mentally struggling with manic depression.  Maybe one demon was physical pain from something like endometriosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe she had a strawberry birthmark that caused her embarrassment.

The demon does not matter, but what the story tells us is that Jesus loved her unconditionally and healed her from the demons. Such unconditional love is the message that Jesus delivered.  Mary chose to accept that unconditional love and responded in a manner that she became a disciple—maybe even one of Jesus’ inner circle, an apostle.

Put yourself in Mary’s place on that Sunday morning. Would you have been sitting on that rock weeping?  Or would you have been one who had gone into hiding?

Mary’s story continues as she arrives at the tomb early Sunday morning.  Her sorrow keeps her steps slow and heavy.  Her head remains downward.  She carries the supplies she needs to complete the burial ritual.  There is no joy in her heart, in her step, nor in her expression.  Her eyes are red from the tears shed over the past several days.  Her hair is a mess.  She has no reason to fix herself up.  She is raw.

And as she reaches the tomb, she looks up.  The stone is rolled away from the opening! The exhaustion she feels turns into agitated confusion.  Why is the tomb open?  Why is the tomb empty?  New tears begin flowing now from confusion and uncertainty and even fear.

Then she turns and sees a figure.  Out of context.  Out of a mind.

And the figure speaks to her. Only when he addresses her in that familiar tone she knows so well, “Mary”, does Mary of Magdala recognize Jesus.  In John, the story continues:

     16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

     17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

     18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Tears turn to joy!

Mary carried the news to the other disciples.  She knew where they were.  She knew the importance of reporting what she saw—who she spoke to. The story of Jesus’ ministry must continue and she who may have been the most emotionally connected to Jesus now had to take a new role—deliver the message of his resurrection.  He still had work to do and even though she wanted to hold him, she couldn’t.  Her faith caused her to move into action.

In a male-dominated culture, where Jesus treated the women equally, Mary Magdalene recognizes the truth of the resurrection. Jesus is alive and all the disciples now must carry the story forward.  They must live as Jesus taught them.  You, too, even 2,000 years later are to join in the task of telling the good news, living the Christian lifestyle, and loving one another as you want to be loved.

Why did Jesus speak to Mary that Sunday morning?

Because he lives.  [Conclude with the music, Because He Lives.]

Closing prayer

 

Dear ever-loving Lord,

May we experience the joy

Mary of Magdala did

As Jesus called out her name.

May we hear God call our names

As Mary Magdalene did

Knowing we, too, are with you

Now and forever.

Guide us to understanding.

Guide us to commitment.

Guide us to serve

One another in love,

Unconditional love.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

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The Cross as the Tree of Jesus

Palm Sunday sermon, March 25, 2018.  This reflection is based on the middle panel of the Church f Resurrection’s stained glass window, Leawood, KS.  The scripture connections are found within the text of the reflection.

No doubt you have noticed that the trees around us are budding out and getting ready to leaf out. Not only did the rain this week knock off those buds onto our driveways, cars, and windows (thanks to the blowing wind), now just looking at the bare branches shows evidence of the green as in the willows and in the nodules of the blooms on the Bradford Pears. Add to the visual images, the allergies that hit whenever the leaves bud out.

The symbolism of the tree in its life cycle cannot be ignored as we enter spring and Holy Week. Trees become central in our lives as we move through the seasons.   Admittedly I could spend a great deal of time using trees as metaphors for life, for religion, for education. . . well the list grows.

As we began the year with the images of the Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window, we looked at the trees—the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree of the cross, and the tree of life. Today, let us return to the central tree in the window, The Cross.

The cross now universally symbolizes the story of Jesus. The images that surround the window’s cross have their own messages for us this Palm Sunday. These images summarize the entire purpose of Jesus’ ministry as listed in Matthew 4:23-25:

                  23 Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing (other translations use preaching) the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 24 News about him spread as far as Syria, and people soon began bringing to him all who were sick. And whatever their sickness or disease, or if they were demon possessed or epileptic or paralyzed—he healed them all. 25 Large crowds followed him wherever he went—people from Galilee, the Ten Towns, Jerusalem, from all over Judea, and from east of the Jordan River.

 

Three verbs share the purpose of Jesus’ three years in ministry:

  1. Teaching listeners how to understand God’s message of loving one another regardless of age or gender, of education or profession, of sins or not.
  2. Announcing/Preaching God’s message Jesus asked for commitment to follow him actively living God’s message.
  3. Healing those whose physical, mental and spiritual health was separating them from God so that they may be whole.

The Old Testament is filled with stories of how the Israelites struggled to remain faithful. They made mistakes, and God forgave them. They struggled to understand. They struggled to remain committed. They became separated from God in so many different ways, yet God never gave up on them as we learned in the story of Noah. And in Joseph, we learned how to live faithfully even when life hands you a lemon.

All those early stories were in the one book of Genesis. The Old Testament contains so much more to read and to understand. Throughout it all, though, God continues to believe in us. Those faithful to him prayed for understanding, for commitment, and for wholeness. And God heard the prayers deciding to step into human form and model the life he asked from us.

Born as the human son of Mary and Joseph, God as Jesus was raised in a Jewish home, nourished and taught to be all that he was to be. Not until Jesus was almost 30 years old, did he begin his ministry. The ministry is visually summarized in the stained glass window beginning with his birth, then his baptism and the calling of his disciples.

The message in the window is a summary God delivered as Jesus Christ. Let’s review the message:

  1. Jesus welcomes the children: Mark 9:33-37

         33 After they arrived at Capernaum and settled in a house, Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you discussing out on the road?” 34 But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.”

         36 Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.”

 

The story of welcoming the children is found in three of the gospels, but not in John.   Including the story or the lesson shows the importance of what Jesus was teaching—God’s love is for everybody and no one is more important than anyone else.

The all-inclusive ministry applied to everybody. The ancient culture created all types of divisions among people such as separation of men and women even in the temple, the social system had freed men and slaves, and the divisions even included geographical labels as the story of the Woman at the Well, a Samaritan.

  1. Woman at the Well: John 4:1-14

Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food.

         9 The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”

         10 Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” . . .

         13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” . . .

Jesus was alone and the cultural standards are clear in the exchange at the well. When the disciples return and find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, a new lesson was given. God’s love and how we are to live with one another does not have any cultural boundary, no geographical boundary.

Maintaining a trusting, faithful relationship with God is possible for anyone, no exclusions. Such inclusion creates a society that supersedes any that humans might create that excludes others in any way.

The window includes another image that shows the enormity of God’s inclusive family. Forgiveness was a large part of the Old Testament stories and the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet echoes that tenant of God’s message, also.

  1. Woman who anointed Jesus’ feet: Luke 7:47-50

         47 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” 48 Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

         49 The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”

         50 And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Jesus modeled forgiveness. Are we able to do the same? Jesus used the different experiences in his life to teach the disciples how to live a God-centered life. He forgave this woman and then explained to the Pharisees and the disciples in the room that forgiveness is another way to love one another.

Certainly the stories captured in the stained glass have more to share about Jesus’ story. The images show how God loves us through the actions of Jesus. The stories explain how faithfulness and forgiveness work to heal those struggling to manage in a sinful world.        The final image before Jesus’ Last Supper is that of Zacchaeus in the tree. Zacchaeus was a tax collector and despised by the Jewish people because he collected taxes for the Roman government. Even though he was Jewish, he was shunned because of his job. The job was equated to corruption as the tax collectors often pocketed money for themselves.

But Zacchaeus was curious and wanted to know more about Jesus and his message. Jesus acknowledged Zacchaeus against the wishes of those around him, but Jesus’ compassion healed Zacchaeus. Jesus looked past the wrongs and saw the man who wanted God’s love:

  1. Zacchaues: Luke 19:9-10

         9 Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

Regardless of our past, God loves us. He waits on us to ask for forgiveness. He waits on us to acknowledge his love for us.   Are we able to accept God’s grace? Are we able to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?

Today we remember how Jesus’ spent three years teaching, preaching and healing all those who came to hear God’s story. Jesus chose to enter into the city with all the pomp and circumstance of a long-awaited king. He knew the trials ahead that his human body would have to endure; but for just a little while, the celebration helped spread the message.

This week, as the rain falls, as the flowers pop open, as the trees continue to leaf out, and the world shakes off the winter, spend some time in prayer and reflection. Are you like one of the images in the window? Have you accepted God’s grace? Have you asked for forgiveness? Have you shared The Story so others, too, may experience God’s love?

Closing prayer

Dear loving, gracious Father,

What a joy it is to see Spring arrive!

What a story you have given us to share.

Let us see The Story in the window

And find ways to share it with others.

May we use this Holy Week

To hear Jesus’ story anew.

Guide us in checking our own faith.

As we look at the images of The Cross

Fill us with unconditional love

So we, too, may know the joy

Of living in full relationship with you,

Now and forever. –Amen

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The Message of the Trees: The Cross: A man-made tree

This is the second of three sermons spinning off the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window as seen below.  The website is https://sacredspaces.cor.org/leawood/

images

Scripture connections:

 Old Testament: Isaiah 53:7-12 (NLT)

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Unjustly condemned,
he was led away.[a]
No one cared that he died without descendants,
that his life was cut short in midstream.[b]
But he was struck down
for the rebellion of my people.
He had done no wrong
and had never deceived anyone.
But he was buried like a criminal;
he was put in a rich man’s grave.

10 But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him
and cause him grief.
Yet when his life is made an offering for sin,
he will have many descendants.
He will enjoy a long life,
and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands.
11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,
he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience,
my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
for he will bear all their sins.
12 I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier,
because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels.
He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.

 

Gospel: Luke 23:44-49 (NLT) [also found in Matthew 27:45-56, Mark 15:44-49 & John 19:18-27]

44 By this time it was about noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock.45 The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. 46 Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!”[a] And with those words he breathed his last.

47 When the Roman officer[b] overseeing the execution saw what had happened, he worshiped God and said, “Surely this man was innocent.[c]” 48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow.[d] 49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

New Testament (from Paul’s letters)

I Corinthians 1:18-21 (NLT)

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”[a]

20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.

Galatians 3:1-3 (NLT)

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?

Reflection:

As I started working on the images of the three trees in the COR’s stained glass window, I struggled to understand how the cross could be identified as a tree. Trees are living, breathing organisms, and a nature-loving mother raised me to respect them. The cross was not a living organism so the only correlation I could make was that it was made from a tree.

Last week we talked about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The image in the window is surrounded by the visual representations of the Old Testament stories. The Tree of the Cross is surrounded by the images that tell the story of Jesus Christ, from his birth in a manger through his crucifixion on the wooden cross.

The cross is a man-made shape used to hang a man. Man destroyed a living tree to destroy Jesus Christ. This tree represents all the evil that God tries to teach us to avoid—and it was man-made rather than God created.

Why, then is the Tree of the Cross the central figure of the three trees? Turning to scripture, references to the cross are buried even in the prophecy of Isaiah:

But he was struck down
for the rebellion of my people.
He had done no wrong
and had never deceived anyone.
But he was buried like a criminal;
he was put in a rich man’s grave.

 

Even though the verses do not use the word ‘cross,’ the typical method of sentencing a criminal, especially if considered a rebel, was crucifixion—a horrible, cruel death meant to serve as a deterrent to others who might encourage rebellion against authorities.

And all four gospels describe Jesus’ death in almost the very same words. The description of the actual crucifixion is minimal, but the method is not as important as the purpose Paul outlines in I Corinthians 1:18-21:

 

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.

 

The message, as we prepare to come to the table today, is that those who accept Jesus Christ as their savior will be saved—granted eternal life.

Paul continues to explain the meaning of the cross to the Galatians:

For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ.

 

The cross is our symbol of God’s effort to keep humanity from self-destructing. The cross is a constant reminder that God loves all so much that he joined us—all humanity—by stepping into human form as Jesus to teach us how to love one another.

The cross triggers us to remember the stories of Jesus’ teachings and his efforts to model how to love one another. The cross, man-made from a tree, carried the weight of Jesus as the body of God died.

Do not leave worship today without keeping image of the Cross with you. Look around in our community and in our homes to see where the Cross is visible. Reflect upon the cruelty that God endured as he completed his work in the body of Christ.

Yes, the Cross was man-made from a tree. In fact a tree had to be destroyed in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. The Old Testament tells the stories of how the ancient Israelites failed to remain faithful to God or failed to follow the Law of Moses beginning with the story of Adam and Eve failing to follow God’s rule. The stained glass artist demonstrated the destruction of the Garden of Eden as God created by the choice of yellowing, withering leaves from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Tree of the Cross symbolizes humanity’s failure to remain faithful. Even legends have developed about the choice of wood used for the cross. The choice the ancient Romans used cannot be proven because the ancient crosses deteriorated and there is no archeological evidence of the wood used. Possibly it was olive wood, cypress, or cedar, but as a native Missourian, I am familiar with the Legend of the Dogwood Tree.

Googling the legend, I found the story:

In Jesus’ time, the dogwood grew 
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm, its branches interwoven.
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown,
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember Me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected, this tree shall be
A reminder to all of My agony.”

 

[Accessed on February 2, 2018 at https://www.gotquestions.org/legend-dogwood.html]

 

This legend helps me remember the message of the Cross, especially when the dogwoods bloom in the Spring. But, I was curious:  Did dogwood trees grow in Jerusalem? No. I learned that the dogwood is native only in the United States.

The Legend of the Dogwood was created to help remember the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Other cultures have different legends, and one of them includes a connection to Seth, a son of Adam and Eve. The story is complex, but it challenges our sense of chronology that our human minds comprehend.

In a doctoral thesis by Nicole Fallon from University of Toronto, Canada, legends share that the wood on the cross came from the trees in the Garden of Eden:

The notion that wood was taken from paradise goes back to Jewish tradition . . . [when] Eve and Seth bring herbs back from Eden; another tale recounts how Adam and Eve took wood with them at the time of the expulsion, which was later used as a rod by Moses and was eventually incorporated into the Tabernacle. A third account tells how Moses went to paradise personally and cut his staff there from the tree of life.

[Accessed on February 2, 2018 at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/19188/1/Fallon_Nicole_A_200911_PhD_thesis.pdf%5D

The Cross represents the story of God as the man Jesus Christ. As we continue to study the Bible and work at hearing God talk to us, it is important to remember that the Bible, like the stained glass window, is filled with stories to guide us in living the very principles God taught us and continues to teach us. In the window, the New Testament images revolve around the Cross, a man-made tree.

We must be disciplined to read The Word as John Wesley instructed the earliest Methodists. Sometimes the scriptures do not make sense based on our personal experiences, but if we study the scripture together in small groups we can help each other find God’s message.

The Tree of the Cross reminds us of God’s promises. This week as we think about the message in the visual images of crosses that surround us in our churches, in our homes, and even around us in our community, we remember God’s promise that those who accept Jesus Christ as their savior will be granted eternal life symbolized by the Tree of Life, the third tree of COR’s stained glass window.

Closing prayer:

Dear Father,

We look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

And know we must be disciplined to read scripture

So we can choose good over evil in our lives.

Yet today we know there is much we do not understand.

 

Today, we consider the Tree of the Cross

And remember Jesus Christ is your son

Who died to pay for our sins.

Yet today, we know there is much we do not understand.

 

As we come to the table for the bread and the cup.

We recommit ourselves to be disciples

Who strive to live the life you give us

So that others, too, may understand your love. –Amen

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PEACE: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

Sermon given on Sunday, Christmas Eve 2017, based on the Advent study by James W. Moore and Jacob Armstrong, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Even though Advent comes to a conclusion with Christmas Day, the study will be followed for the next week or two.  Many thanks to Moore and Armstrong for publishing this study so others may find the gifts that won’t break:  Hope, Love, Joy and Peace.

Scripture: Luke 2:1-6 (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.

 

Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)

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. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)

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. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

PEACE: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

Life at this time of year sometimes feels like total chaos. There has been all the shopping, the baking, the extra events on the calendar and all this is on top of our typical daily life routines. No wonder everybody becomes exhausted. The idea of peace seems impossible.

Yet, peace is possible. And today, Christmas Eve, in the midst of all the seasonal chaos, peace is possible and it is a gift that won’t break.

Chaos is a permanent state around us and that is no different throughout human history.—even since creation, as John 1 reminds us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)

 

At no time in our lives are we immune to chaos. The key to peace is knowing that God is with us, or as one of our members has said repeatedly this year, “God’s got this.” And that testimony has carried her through the chaos of a medical crisis.

God is with us. Since the beginning, God has existed and continues to be a very real presence within our lives. Have we opened this gift? Today is the perfect time to open this last gift, God’s gift of peace.

[Light the Peace candle.]

Peace is difficult to define especially when our world is in such chaos, but I always have hope that we can reach the ultimate goal of peace. The key is finding peace with God first, then finding peace with one’s self, and that makes finding peace with others possible.

This morning we awoke to find the magic of a white Christmas.   The snow really completes the mental image of Christmas for us in the Midwest. Seldom, though, does a white Christmas become real. I hope that as you stepped out into the natural world you heard the peace.

As I tried to figure out a way to explain what the gift of peace was to the kids, I could only come up with one idea—the way the world is when snow falls. There is nothing like it. When snow falls, there is a pureness that one experiences.

  • The visual shows a world with no flaws as the snow covers the dulled yards, turns leafless trees and bushes into white, sparkling gardens if even for a few moments.
  • Snow even has a unique smell, almost absent of odors but also refreshing. We notice that when we go into the stores and see candles and scents with snow as the descriptors. One might think that snow should smell like rain, but it has its own unique scent.
  • And who admits that snow does have a taste. As kids, I am sure we have all ran out into the snow, stuck out our tongue and tasted it. Why snow even serves as the base ingredient for an old fashioned treat—snow ice cream (even though we always add extra taste elements to it).
  • Touching snow may begin with the taste on the tongue, but snow brings out the kids in all of us as we run and play, scoop it up to make snowmen, or fall into it to make snow angels. Even the gentle feel of the snow on our face seems to calm our very anxious souls.
  • Finally, the sound of snow is the key to knowing what peace is. Step into a world where snow has coated the ground, especially as the day begins. The sound of snow is peace. It quiets us, it soothes us, it wraps us up like a warm blanket on the coldest of days.

This mornings gentle snow fall can serve as a real example of what peace with God is like.   (I know, the cynics might try to twist the magic of the white Christmas into the negatives, but I choose to focus on the snow as an example of God’s gift of peace.)

James Moore uses the story of the angels being taught to sing the one hymn to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as a one-time public event. The angels were told that this was the only time that they would sing this one song as a performance. That may seem like a silly story, but thing about how the Christmas carols delight us as we look forward to Christmas.

The story concludes with God explaining to the angels that once they perform this majestic hymn, their job was done. Moore writes God’s response: “Because,” God said, “my son has been born, and now earth must do the singing!”

The Christmas story is told and retold every year in hope that all people can find peace with God. Moore adds:

The Good news of Christmas is so awesome, so full of wonder, that it’s not enough just to talk about it. We have to burst forth in song, we have to sing it. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 85)

The gift of peace begins with knowing God and accepting the gift of his son Jesus Christ as our savior. With that we can also find peace within ourselves even if chaos swirls around us like the tornadoes we know so well.

Accepting God’s gift of Jesus in our life makes it possible for us to find a sense of calm in our lives. Consider all those around you and that you have heard throughout history who demonstrate calm despite the chaos that surrounds them. I can list a few of the most historical examples : Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.

Placing God first and then turning one’s life over to him creates peace within one’s own life. Moore states, “The only way we can be right with ourselves is to be made right by him [God].” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 89)

Finally, the gift of peace expands into peace with others. By accepting God’s gift of Christ, we turn over the chaos to him. Remember our own example this year as we heard the personal testimony in the battle with cancer, “God’s got this.”

Because God has accepted our chaos, we can find peace with ourselves, and that makes it possible for us to find peace with others. Moore explains the tradition of the mistletoe to demonstrate how important it is that we find peace with others, too.

The ancient tradition of northern European Druids is far different than what we may expect. Moore explains:

They believed mistletoe had curative powers and could heal lots of things including separation between people. So when two enemies happened to meet under an oak tree with mistletoe hanging above them, they took it as a sign from God that they should drop their weapons and be reconciled. They would set aside their animosities and embrace one another under the mistletoe.

When Christian missionaries moved into northern Europe, they saw this mistletoe custom as a perfect symbol for what happened at Christmas—that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us, to redeem us, and to bring us peace, healing, forgiveness, love, and reconciliation. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 90)

Today we can just imagine what it was like to live in the cold, frigid regions of northern Europe. The environment might be comparable to our lives without God, without peace. The mistletoe of God in our lives gives us the power to find peace with others, too.

Give the gift of peace this year. Follow Moore’s advice:

If you want to have a “peace-full” Christmas, go in the spirit of love and fix the broken relationships in your life. If you are alientated or estranged or cut off or at odds with any other person, go in the spirit of Christmas and make peace. Don’t put it off any longer. Drop your pride,your resentment, your grudges, and go set it right. With the help of God, go make peace today. Christmas offers us the gift of peace with others, but it’s up to us to accept that gift. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 90)

Christmas is the annual reminder that God loves us and gives us the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ. Accepting that opens us to a world that is peace-filled.

Merry Christmas to each of you. I pray that you have received the gifts that won’t break: hope, love, joy and peace.

Closing prayer: (in unison)

Dear God, thank you for the gift of peace.

Help us put peace into practice

            in our lives and show others

            the path to true peace.

Remind us to serve as peacemakers

            and to share the love of God

            with those in need. Amen.

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JOY: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

This is the 3rd of the Advent series based on James W. Moore’s and Jacob Armstrong’s Advent study, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  As always, I am very appreciative for the work these two have done and making it available to others for their Advent.

 

Scripture:

Matthew 1:22-25, NLT

     22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[a]
which means ‘God is with us.’”

     24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.

 

Luke 1:28-38, NLT

     28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings,[a] favored woman! The Lord is with you![b]

     29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel[c] forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

     34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

     35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.[d]

     38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

 

Notes for lighting the advent candle for JOY:

Looking up ‘joy’ in the index and concordance of my Bible, I find some interesting pieces:

 

Joy is defined as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortuned.” The first reference in the concordance is in Deuteronomy and the last one is in 1 John; but during Advent, the focus is on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Just in the gospels, the concordance lists 14 entries of which only five of the verses are included in the traditional Christmas story. The others are primarily either later in Jesus’ ministry or as the end of his life.

In the index, there are fewer listings. In fact there are only a total of 11 of which seven are from the gospels. Psalms includes two, Philippians have three and Romans only one.

Key to all, though, is the emphasis on the emotion of joy comes from being faithful and in relation to God, especially through acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior.

Mary’s role in the Christmas story helps us to understand this emotion of joy because she delivered the baby Jesus to the world and that human role is something we understand. The gospel of John [16:19-24, NLT] completes the explanation in Jesus’ words as he tries to explain what he meant when he said, “In a little while you won’t see me, but then you will see me. . . “:

19 Jesus realized they wanted to ask him about it, so he said, “Are you asking yourselves what I meant? I said in a little while you won’t see me, but a little while after that you will see me again. 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy.21 It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. 22 So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy23 At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything. I tell you the truth, you will ask the Father directly, and he will grant your request because you use my name. 24 You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.

 

 

JOY: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

            JOY: What a packed word! This small word has immense power to take a gloomy day and turn it around. Yet in today’s world joy is evasive. The climate in which we currently live is so full of political and human turmoil due to so many factors that finding joy could be a chore. Yet, joy is one of the very best characteristics of Christians.

Take a minute to reflect on the people you know that you feel exhibit a Christian attitude. Do you not see them as joyful or joy-filled? I contend that a solid understanding of one’s faith in God and living the Christian lifestyle transforms our human lives into joyfilled lives rather than cynical, embittered, and miserable lives.

As a cook, I can see the recipe for a joy-filled life begins with the basic ingredient of God as introduced to us through Jesus Christ. Maybe that why I find joy in preparing a meal for family and friends; and no time is better than during Advent and Christmas time to realize that the mere act of preparing a meal with all kinds of special dishes is exactly what the gift of joy is. Preparing a special holiday meal is a gift that does not break and is one of encouragement, of thoughtfulness, and of graciousness. The satisfaction that it provides the guests as well as the cook(s) is joy!

In James Moore’s study, he writes that joy has three types: encouragement, thoughtfulness and graciousness. He argues that when God is with us, we provide the very ingredients of those three qualities. He states:

. . . the great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, all wrapped up in that one word, Emmanel, which means God is always with us! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 63)

When we prepare a meal, we demonstrate the very idea that God is always with us. (For instance, how else can we be safe with knives and hot stoves and liquids all around us.) God is with us when we realize who we hope will come to our table and when we show love to the guests. The invitation itself is a gift of ‘encouragement’ as you include them in your life and pray for their joy, too. As guests, they are encouraged to join in your life as family and/or friends—what an opportunity to share God’s story, also:

That is part of our task as Christians, isn’t it? We need to say to a scared, anxious, confused, fretful world, “Boy, have we got good news for you!? The good news is that we can share it because God is with us and will see us through. Our part of that good news is saying to people near us, “I care about you,” “I believe in you,” “I trust you,” “You can do it.”

Maybe the best gift we can give someone we love this Christmas is a gift that will not break: the joy of encouragement. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 64)

 

But back to the meal, we plan the meal, knowing the guests’ likes and dislikes as well as knowing the traditions the guests enjoy sharing. From the minute the decision to serve a meal is made until the final dish is put away, the cook(s) are operating with love. Love guides each choice and step of the meal’s preparation. Planning and preparing the meal is also an exercise in ‘thoughtfulness’ which Moore identifies as another type of way to give joy.

Deciding to host a family and/or friends dinner takes thoughtfulness when considering what to prepare. We know the guests well enough to know the likes and dislikes, the allergies, and the traditional expectations. But consider if the meal were being prepared for strangers. The mere act of serving a meal to strangers is an example of thoughtfulness, but Moore had another example of taking that to even another level tell the story of the First United Methodist Church in Shreveport, LA, who decided to serve dinner on Christmas Day for anybody who might be hungry or lonely. The meal offered not only a complimentary meal but also fellowship and Christmas carols:

Moore said, “Just after lunch on Christmas afternoon, I drove to the church to see how things were going. . . . As I went inside, I met several members of our outreach committee coming out the door and heading for home. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘Is it over? Didn’t anybody show up?’ A committee member answered, ‘Oh, they are in there for sure. About 300 are eating right now. The only reason we are leaving is that some new workers came in to relieve us.’ . . .

When I went into the kitchen, I was moved to tears by what I saw: There was my good friend, a rabbi, along with 14 members of his temple, who had told our people, ‘This is your special day. Go home and be with your families, and we will work for you.’ (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 65)

 

Just imagine the joy Moore experienced. The thoughtfulness of the rabbi and his volunteers delivered joy in so many ways. In a surprising way, the story of Christ came to Shreveport and it was a gift that cannot be broken.

As a cook, preparing a meal for my family and friends at any time of the year provides extra prayer time for them, too. Serving a meal and joining in conversation can provides special, non-stressful times to talk out issues, provide words of encouragement, and demonstrate Christianity.

Cutting up the vegetables for the salads, becomes a practice of thoughtfulness, too. Each one who sits at my table gets a salad that is unique for their own tastes. Even the menu takes thoughtfulness to make sure that it is appropriate for the eaters. And then, for those special events, the preparation includes the traditions that match those at the table. The meal is a gift filled with thoughtfulness in hopes of bringing joy to each one seated.

Moore’s third form of the gift of joy is graciousness. Preparing a meal may seem a bit of a stretch to explain graciousness, but it comes with two views. First, consider the graciousness of the meal as the host/hostess. There is a level of selflessness demonstrated by the cook(s) and the host/hostess to prepare for the meal. The joy of graciousness is demonstrated by the work that goes into the meal—a form of sacrificial love.

Secondly, there is a gift of graciousness that the receivers give, too. Acknowledging the work of the cook(s) and/or the host/hostess provides a level of joy to them, too. Giving the gifts that do not break whether it is hope, love or joy, also has a return for those who are doing the giving. The doers end up receiving joy from witnessing the effect of their efforts. The guests, too, return the gift of graciousness in expressing their joy openly.

The essence of Christmas is the joy or gracious, sacrificial love. Christ came to show us what God is like and what God wants us to be like, and the word is love: love came down at Christmas, and the joy it brings is the best and most unbreakable gift of all! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 67)

During the next week, we will continue to listen to the news and hear of all the challenges to life whether it is the wildfires in California, the hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, or all the individuals who have been abused or harassed or bullied in one way or another, God calls us to give the gifts that won’t break. Those gifts are to provide hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, and joy to those who are joyless.

Jacob Armstrong adds to the study how we can gift the gift of joy when tragedy strikes, we lose a loved one, or we simply feel unhappy with our lives. He writes:

. . . Can there still be joy?

Yes, God says. There can be joy. That’s what Advent is all about. It’s about our hoping, believing, waiting for God to come and make something out of our mess. We wait for God to step into what appears to be impending doom and save us. Advent hold out the belief that in the midst of that kind of waiting, God brings the gift of joy.

  • God often uses the most impossible thing you can think of as the very sign that God is with us. And in the impossible being made possible, we find
  • The Jesus story teaches us that we can find joy even in scary and impossible situations.
  • Knowing God is with us is the gift that brings joy. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 72, 74, 76-77)

 

So, Merry Christmas! As you begin the final week of preparation, remember that the story we celebrate provides the gifts that won’t break. The gifts of hope, love, and joy are worth all the efforts we put into loving one another as much as we love God and as much as we want to be loved. With these gifts, will come one more—the gift of peace.

Closing prayer:

Dear God, thank you for the gift of joy

And for the way it brightens our days.

Help us give joy to others

Through what we say and do.

Show us how to make this Christmas

A true season of joy. Amen

Work Cited

Moore, James W., and Jacob Armstrong. Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.

 

 

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LOVE: The Christmas Present that Won’t Break

This is the second in a series based on James Moore’s and Jacob Armstrong’s Advent study, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Again, I want to thank them for their work and allowing churches to use their ideas.

John 3:16

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

 

UMH 242     Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love divine;

Love was born at Christmas; star and angels gave the sign.

 

Worship we the Godhead, Love incarnate, Love divine;

Worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign?

 

Love shall be our token; love be yours and love be mine;

Love to God and all men, love for plea and gift and sign.

 

Luke 2:8-20

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

 

LOVE: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

            Love is a word that may seem almost overused or bantered about so much that the true meaning of it loses significance or importance. Consider how easy it is to say we “love” this or that. For instance, consider some of this times we use the word:

  • I love sunshine.
  • I love chocolate chip cookies.
  • I love the Royals or the Chiefs.
  • I love the color green.
  • I love summer.
  • I love snow.
  • I love. . . . and the list just grows.

 

Do we use the word love to describe so many different things in our lives that the value of love as found in John 3:16 loses value?

Hear the words of that verse again:

 

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

 

In Moore’s Advent study, Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break, he writes:

 

. . . What puts the meaning of Christmas deep into our souls? What writes the Christmas spirit indelibly on our hearts?   Well, of course, the essence of Christmas is love. God’s incredible love for us, expressed when he sent his only son into the world to save us. “Love Came Down at Christmas”—that’s how the hymn writer puts it. That’s the answer to our question. Whenever and wherever we receive God’s sacrificial love, whenever and wherever we pass it on to others, whenever and wherever God’s love is accepted and Shared, Christmas comes once again! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 39)

 

The answer sounds familiar, especially for Methodists, as it echoes the John Wesley quote once again:

 

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. (Wesley 2017)

 

This places each one of us in a responsible position to act as the arm of God in so many ways that it might even cause us to become numb to the very way we can put love into action.

Moore provides three specific scenarios that makes it easier to identify how we can put love as the essence of Christmas, yes, but also for each day of our lives:

  1. When we love God, there is Christmas.
  2. When we love our families, there is Christmas.
  3. When we love other people, there is Christmas. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 39, 41, 42)

 

Consider Moore’s first answer to how we demonstrate love. When do we love God? This may be the toughest of the three times to show how we love God. God is an abstract idea for most, and to share that love with others so they can fully identify love as a viable factor in their own lives can be so difficult that we avoid even trying to sharing it with others.

I suggest that when we love God, we also do not feel comfortable sharing our love of God openly in our daily lives. We can easily just live quietly loving God not wanting to interfere with others and their own opinion of God. At Christmas, though, we join in the outpouring of the holiday festivities. Are we openly showing how we love God at these times or are we just trying to fit in with all the traditional practices, not making waves about what the essence of Christmas truly is—love?

            Personally, I have to admit that loving God openly has not always been easy. Just doing what everybody else does at Christmas is easy. It does not really mean investing into the story and deciding how God wants us to live. Instead, we put up the tree, decorate, bake, and shop.

On the outside, others might think that we believe because we join in the celebration of Christmas, but are we celebrating because we love God? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. I know that life circumstances have challenged my enthusiasm for Christmas as a special holiday. I have had to go through a range of emotions from fun to hurt to loneliness to uncertainty and even to anger.

But, despite all the real-life experiences that altered the Christmas expectations I thought were so important from my childhood through to even today’s vision of Christmas, I had to discover something. Without loving God, there is no Christmas. The way we celebrate Christmas must begin with our love of God.

Reaching that understanding did not come quickly; rather it came from living life managing all the challenges without giving up on God. Despite everything, God has walked my journey with me just as he walks the journey with any one of us. Christmas begins with loving God and that makes it possible for us to love our families and to love other people, too. This is the love that is the essence of Christmas as Moore puts it:

Whenever and wherever we receive God’s sacrificial love, whenever and wherever we pass it on to others, whenever and wherever God’s love is accepted and shared, Christmas comes once again! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 39)

 

Giving the gift of love is one that never breaks. Even when we give gifts that can break, the foundation of the giving is the love we feel for God, demonstrated in the love of our families and of all other people that come across our life’s path.

Loving God and living the lifestyle that Jesus taught, we can manage to show love to all others even when the life experiences we have cause pain and heartache. For instance, consider all the families who have been broken through death or divorce.

That experience can make one question what love is; but I believe that when one lives with God as the foundation of life, love continues. In fact, that very love of God makes it possible to continue loving one another even when heartbroken, lonely, and yes, even angry. Moore makes this statement that helps explain this:

Unfortunately, in many homes this Christmas there will be a chill in the air. You see, there is a big difference between everybody being at home. . . and being at home with everybody. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 41)

 

With God as the foundation of one’s life, it is possible to be at home with everybody—family, friend, neighbor, strangers and even enemies. I know this because I have been broken at Christmas, yet somehow God’s love still makes the Christmas story, the carols, and the decorations soak through all the pain to remind me that Christmas is about God’s love—a love so unconditional, so unbelievable, that he decided to step down on this earth as a man Jesus.

Moore puts into words what I have learned:

Whenever and wherever there is peace and harmony and tenderness and respect and thoughtfulness and caring in the family, Christmas comes once again. When we love God, and when we love our families, there is Christmas!

 

And what we learn about loving our families, expands as we step out of our homes and meet others in our daily lives. God’s love fill us up and we see all people as equals with their own stories struggling to find love in their lives. We see people who do not know how to love others with pain in their own lives.

God loved all people pain and all. He wants us to love all people too just like we know he loves us. Accepting Jesus Christ as our savior, we have a responsibility to freely give that love away. This giving does not mean that we run out to the local store to buy gifts that can break or not fit, rather we are to give the gift that won’t break, the gift of openly loving one another. Moore writes:

. . . When we see Christ in other people and love them, then at that precise moment Christmas comes once again. . . . When we love other people, there is Christmas. The Christmas gift of love is surely a Christmas gift that won’t break! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 42, 44)

 

Just what does the Christmas gift of love look like? Jacob Armstrong wrote in the devotions that the gift of love is not an object but it can be identified by what it provides:

  1. . . . love casts out fear
  2. . . .love comes to where we are
  3. . . . love means that we aren’t alone.
  4. . . . love leads us to long for more. . .

 

What is it that we long for? When we discover God’s love, we discover that we long to share God’s love. God’s love leads us to live life with a drive to learn more of God and to find ways to love one another.

Celebrate Christmas this year knowing that God loved us so much that he sent his only son so that we might open the gift of God’s love and transform our lives. Let us be like the shepherds who left the fields and found the baby Jesus. Let us go back to our homes and give this gift through stories and actions that God’s love is a present that will not break.

Closing prayer:

 

Dear God, thank you for the gift of love.

May we share this gift with others

and learn how to love unconditionally.

Help us during this Christmas season

to practice love in action

with family, friends, and strangers. Amen.

(Moore and Armstrong 2017, 46)

 

 

Works Cited

Moore, James W., and Jacob Armstrong. Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.

 

 

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Hope: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

Welcome to Advent!  This sermon was given on Sunday, December 3, 2017 as the first of a series based on Moore’s and Armstrong’s book and devotions, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Please read the introduction and the sermon based on what I read in their book.  Many thanks to them for writing the study.  I pray that it reaches into the hearts of the readers as it did for me.

 

All of us have had our hopes built on getting something for Christmas that we thought we just had to have. Maybe you were a kid, but maybe you were even a grown up and just had to have this one thing you wanted for Christmas.

Preparing for Advent, I looked at three different studies trying to find one that I felt expressed or explained the Christmas experience for today’s Christians. Today we begin the study by James Moore and Jacob Armstrong, Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break.

Let me share a story from Moore’s introduction (paraphrased):

Bishop Kenneth Shamblin told a story about his 5-year-old son’s hope to get a particular red truck for Christmas. He did everything he could to make sure that his parents knew what he hoped to get for Christmas. And he did get it. But shortly after dinner that Christmas Day, he came to his dad crying with the broken truck in his hands. The Bishop reported that the truck was quickly fixed, but it raised an interesting question: What are the Christmas gifts that won’t break? (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 7-8)

 

I expect that there is not one of us who has not experienced something similar in our lives. Whether it is a gift that we thought we just had to have or it is one we gave to fill someone else’s hopes. We thought it was the perfect gift, but then it broke or did not fit.

The introduction references one of Jesus’ lessons in Matthew 6:19-21: (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 8)

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

 

What happens when we put all our hope and anticipation into something? How often do we end up being disappointed or find that it is only a temporary good feeling? For many today, Christmas is broken. Truthfully Christmas season is just the wrapping for the unbreakable gift God has for us: Jesus Christ.

 

Hope

 

Advent is a time when we begin to anticipate the celebration of God’s ultimate gift to us—his son Jesus Christ; and today is the first of four Sundays that make up Advent. In our culture, the holiday season is in full swing with the stores all dressed up, with Christmas music playing, and with Santa making stops at all kinds of places. Yet, very little really explains why Christians are preparing for Christmas Day.

The Old Testament is filled with prophetic literature telling the faithful that a savior was going to come fix the problems that seemed so overwhelming that the faithful were losing trust. Yet the faithful continued to hope that God would send a savior. Just like the little boy who put all his hopes into getting a little red truck, the ancient Israelites hoped the prophecies would be fulfilled. Hope kept faith alive.

Why is it important that we celebrate Advent? Are we in the very same crisis as the ancient Israelites? Are we prepared for Christ to appear? Have we lost hope? Advent reconnects us to the story of God’s ultimate gift and during these four weeks let’s look for gifts that never break.

            The Christmas story begins in Matthew with God talking to Mary and Joseph. The circumstances create an awkward situation for the engaged couple, but the story tells us that an angel separately visited each of them to announce that they would be parents to a baby.

Mary had to be frightened, but she placed her faith in God’s angel and accepted her role as the expectant mother. Joseph must have really been shocked when the angel visited him. He knew he was not the father, yet he was given the responsibility to name the baby.

The gospel of Matthew, which is written for the faithful Jews waiting for the ancient prophecies to be fulfilled, explains how Mary and Joseph learned of their roles:

     18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement[a]quietly.

     20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,[b] for he will save his people from their sins.” [Matthew 1:18-21, NLT]

 

Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt? His hopes for a wife and family were dramatically crushed—or at least could have been crushed except for one thing: Joseph believed the angel. Much less he had been given the name for the baby.

Advent is a time to give the gift of hope. When events in our lives seem completely out of control and we have a sense of impending doom, God never abandons us. Joseph may have thought he was alone and all his plans were ruined, but he held on to his faith in God, trusted the angel’s message, and was filled with hope that this child he was given to raise as his own son was the long-awaited Messiah. What a gift!

We have a similar power when we give others the gift of hope. For those who may be trapped by a sense of hopelessness, we can share the story of how much God loves us and never abandons us. We can give them the gift of hope by demonstrating our own faith and how it makes our lives joy-filled.

God’s gift of his son Jesus is the reason for the season (apologies for the cliché); and when Joseph gave the baby the name Jesus, he signaled to the faithful how this child revived the hope for the Jews. The name Jesus is a derivative from the name Joshua who tore down the walls of Jericho. Moore writes that Jesus’ name means “wall-breaker” and he proceeds to explain how Jesus broke down walls that divide us from one another and from God:

“Now, this idea of Jesus being the wall-breaker, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, can better be understood when we see it against the backdrop of the Temple’s physical layout in the time of Jesus. The Temple was a parable in stone, exposing the prejudices, or walls, that existed in society during biblical times—walls that included a few privileged people but excluded or shut out most. As worshipers moved through the temple toward the high altar (the Holy of Holies), they encountered a series of walls holding the people back from God.

“The first wall held back foreigners, people of other races and nations. The second wall held back women. The third wall held back all men except the priests. The fourth wall, a veil surrounding the Holy of Holies, held back everyone except the High Priest, who was permitted to go inside the veil only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Even then the other priests tied a rope around his ankle, so that if he fell or passed out, they could pull him back without going inside!

“The Holy of Holies, which represented the presence of God, was remote, fearsome, austere, and unapproachable. But then came Jesus, and he broke down the dividing walls and made us one. He brought God out to the people. . . .

. . . The walls we build today are every bit as real as those in the Temple. Here are some of them:

“. . . walls that divide nations . . .

“. . . walls that divide men and women. . . .

“. . . walls that divide clergy and laity. . . .

“. . . wall that hold people back from God. . . .

Do you remember what happened in the Temple when Jesus was on the cross? The veil around the Holy of Holies was torn apart, from top to bottom. God did it! God tore it! God broke down that wall!” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 18-19)

 

Sharon shared the explanation about the torn veil earlier this year, and it is so important to review the importance of God’s action in relation to the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born to teach us how to live with one another by breaking down all that separates us from each other.

Christians around the world are celebrating Advent’s first Sunday focusing on the hope that we have “for peace on earth and good well toward all people”. This is the gift that won’t break whenever we give it away to those who feel hopeless.

Are you giving the gift of hope this year?

Whenever you do anything that shares God’s love as Jesus taught us, you are giving the unbreakable gift of hope. Remember that the gift of hope comes in many forms:

  • “. . . the gift of hope for healing.
  • “. . . the gift of hope for refuge.
  • “. . . the gift of hope for deliverance.
  • “. . . the gift of hope for salvation.” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 29-30)

As Moore writes, “. . .become an instrument of hope to others this week. Give the gift of hope to those who need it by giving of yourself. . . . ” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 23)

This is giving hope, one Christmas gift that won’t break.

Closing prayer:

Dear God, thank you for the season of Advent and the gift of hope. Help us to prepare our hearts for your coming and to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Amen (Moore and Armstrong 2017) (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 23)

Works Cited

Moore, James W., and jacob Armstrong. Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.

 

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