Worship 12/20/20

Call to Worship/Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.  3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Opening Prayer

O God of love gather us as your people, both near and far, and have and blessed us with your very self.  Open our eyes to the light of Christ which glows in the darkness of a world engulfed in apathy, pain, and loss; a world separated from you.  Speak to us now that we may hear the good news of your salvation.  Bring us into the wonder of your presence.  Fill us with that light and carry it out with us into your world.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/John 1:1-18 (NRSV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2He was in the beginning with God.  3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)  16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Message/Through the Eyes of a Child

There is something about the Christmas story that fuels our imaginations.  And I think this is a good thing.  Through the twenty centuries since the first Christmas, an immesurable amount of ink has been spilled to capture the story’s essence.  Poets and priests, songwriters and storytellers have lifted up their questions, offered their insights, shared their feelings.  While we have the stories that come to us directly from the Scriptures itself, the Christ event will always, to at least some degree, remain a mystery.  After all, how can one put into words the underlying truth: the infinite becoming finite, the invisible becoming visible, love taking shape in human flesh? 

Using my own imagination, I have often attempted to place myself within the story somewhere, as one of its original participants, to ponder its meaning and to feel the emotions stirred within their soul in those holy moments.  For example, what would it have been like to hear the angelic chorus singing their aria of joy and praise over the fields?  Did they have the aid of instruments as in so many of our depictions of them or were their voices more than enough to carry their heavenly melodies and harmonies across the skies?  What feelings might I have felt upon this revelation?  Fear, certainly, but probably also bewilderment and awe.  What would it have been like to experience the mystery of Christmas through the eyes of the magi when they first discovered the star, a celestial phenomenon that they had never seen before, considering it of such magnitude that it must portend a significant earthly event?  With our sanctified imaginations, we could view this event through the perspective of Jesus’ earthly parents Mary or Joseph or maybe even through anonymous others about whom the Bible is silent who just happened to be nearby that night.

In his reflection, Eternal Child, J. Barrie Shepherd suggests that there must have been a child somewhere in the stable, gathered with the rest of them around the manger.  Based on the witness of Scriptural tradition combined with all that Jesus taught us about the essential role of childhood, Barrie feels that there must have been at least one child there, to stand in as witness for all children who would come thereafter.  He imagines that it could have been a child of one of the shepherds who accompanied them from the fields to the stable.  Or perhaps the innkeeper had a son or daughter helping to lead the weary couple to their place of shelter and help them make the most of the meagre provisions available.  Maybe it was a homeless child who had to learn how to survive on his or her own resourcefulness and the kindness of others.  There must have been a child lurking somewhere close by the manger.

I have many fond memories of Christmases when I was a child.  Living so far away from family meant that Christmas was one of the few times a year that we were able to see my grandparents and other family members.  It was a long, three-hundred-mile journey from Kingsport, Tennessee to Louisville, Kentucky riding with my younger brother in the backseat of my parents’ ’68 Pontiac Catalina.  Back in the 1970s, the first third of the trip was on tight, curvy, two-lane highways that often placed us at the mercy of coal trucks belching diesel fumes which exacerbated my carsickness.  Needless to say, our family became quite familiar with convenient places to stop along Highway 58 between Duffield and the Cumberland Gap.

I knew the trip by heart.  In the days before GPS navigation systems and Google maps, whenever someone asked my dad how he got to Louisville, dad would say, “Just go to Gate City and turn left.”  From Duffield we would cross over from Scott County into Lee County, Virginia through every little town along the way: Stickleyville, Pennington Gap, Ben Hur, Jonesville, Rose Hill, Ewing….and finally we would reach what mom and dad would call the Promised Land—Kentucky.  From there we’d continue on through Middlesboro, with its greeting sign proudly pointing out that it’s the home of actor Lee Majors, and then Barbourville, Pineville, and Corbin where we’d finally pick up the much more comfortable Interstate 75.  But it was all worth it to see the glowing orange electric Christmas candles in my grandmother’s windows as we pulled into her driveway.  I was always amazed at how my dad was able to load the trunk so efficiently, squeezing in all of the neatly wrapped presents and luggage and praying the whole trip not to have a flat so he wouldn’t have to take it all out to access the spare tire.

Each day’s docket was filled with visits to various family members, great aunts, second cousins, and the like.  Since we saw them so rarely, every minute had to count.  But we always would pack our nice clothes and take the time to attend worship on Christmas Eve at Concordia Lutheran Church in Louisville, its candle-lit sanctuary bearing the feel of a gothic cathedral with spires arching and booming pipe organ leading us through the great carols of Christmas.  I would be filled with joy and awe, the spirit of the season welling up within me as I sang.  On Christmas morning we would go to my grandmother’s church for worship and do the same thing.  But I wasn’t quite as focused then, because I knew that, following worship we would gather at my maternal grandparents’ house for Christmas lunch and unwrapping presents.  I can see things as clearly now with the eye of memory as I could when living in those moments.  I can hear the voice of my grandfather as he regaled us with stories of generations past and my grandmother who would fuss at me for putting my feet on the couch but would always sneak me a few pieces of Chicklet Gum from her private stash in the cabinet drawer.  One could say that it was magical.  And while I enjoyed the presents, the real gift of being a child at Christmas was the feeling of warmth, a sense of belonging, of being part of a tradition, connected to a larger story.  It wasn’t the presents but the people who really meant so much, perhaps even more so now that several are no longer with us.

There is a beautiful story recounted every Christmas in the forests of Provence in southern France.  It’s the story of four shepherds who came to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child.  One brought eggs, another bread and cheese, the third brought wine.  And the fourth, the youngest of the shepherds, brought nothing at all.  The people called him L’Enchante’.  The first three shepherds chatted with Mary and Joseph, commenting on how well Mary looked, how cozy Joseph made their surroundings.  They talked about the weather and the beauty of the starlight night.  They congratulated the proud parents, presented them with their gifts and assured them that if they needed anything else, they only had to ask.  Finally, one of them asked, “Where is L’Enchante’?”  They searched high and low, up and down, inside and out.  Finally, someone peered through the blanket hung against the draft, into the crèche.  There, kneeling at the crib, was L’Enchante’—the Enchanted One.  Like a flame or flag taking the direction of the prevailing wind, he had taken the direction of love.  Through the entire night, he stayed in adoration

Perhaps one of the lessons we most need right now in our cynical, hyper-caffeinated world, perhaps especially in this time of anxiety and pandemic, is to allow ourselves to view Christmas one more time through the wonderment and the imagination of a child.  It seems quite plausible that there was a child somewhere in the vicinity of the stable that night so long ago in Bethlehem who witnessed the birth of Jesus.  God comes to us as a child.  Later, when questioned by the disciples about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, that same child teaches them that they must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Children have always had a special part to play in Salvation’s story.  Jesus welcomed children and pointed to them as models of faith.  Children deal with mystery much better than adults.  As we age, we begin to ask more detailed questions and attempt to control situations and concepts with our knowledge and intellect.  Growing older, mystery becomes an equation to be solved rather than a something to be lived into.  Our adult egos don’t do well with mystery.  The unexplainable unmasks our external projections to the world that we are masters of our own destiny, that we are competent, capable.  Children do a much better job at accepting that there are just some things that are beyond their grasp and can just let things be.

Madeline L’Engle—“Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me!  It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy.  It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine.

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angles clapped their hands for joy?

Power.  Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.  Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose, slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough, and it is time for birth.

Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be.  Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.  Herein lies the mystery that is Christmas.

Pastoral Prayer

Spirit of God, you open doors that are locked, break the shackles of slavery, erode the pyramids of domination, and tumble tyrants from their thrones.  You give us life and whisper in our hearts, “You are God’s beloved child, and always will be.” Deep in every human heart you plant a seed of promise, a glimmer of expectation, and a spark of hope.  And because you give us breath, we praise you. Do not give up on us when we let go of hope, surrender to disappointment, drift into aimlessness, or sink into gloom and despair.  Stir us, again and again, to dream of new possibilities, and energize each other with new expectations.  Hear our prayer for all who wait in hope for a smile, a handshake, and a welcome; and for all who long to find joy beyond sorrow, healing beyond hurt, peace beyond conflict, and dawn after dark night.

Resurrect the hopes of people bruised and beaten.  Fan into flame the spark of hope in caregivers racked with tiredness, prisoners locked in isolation, and people held captive by illness and addiction.  Breathe and blow through this congregation and kindle your gifts of patience, kindness, humility, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.  Revive in us now the freedom to give and receive, to make mistakes and start again to forgive and accept forgiveness.  Energize your Church around the world.  Strengthen those who are persecuted for their faith.  Give courage to women, children, and men who day by day struggle to survive.  Hold us all in communion, that through differences of culture and conviction, we may hear the world say, “These Christians love each other.  This is something new.”  To you, most humble, most wise, yet ever untamable Spirit, with the Word made flesh and the Source of all things, Holy Three, Holy One, be glory and honor, worship, and praise, now and forever as we pray with one voice, Jesus’ prayer:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Blessing/Benediction

New Testament scholar J.B. Phillips once wrote about a senior angel who is showing an incredibly young angel the splendors of the universe.  They view whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and then flit across the vast distances of space until they enter one particular galaxy of 500 billion stars.  As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis.  It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.  “I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing his finger.  “Well, it looks very small and dirty to me,” said the little angel.  “What’s so special about that one?” The little angel listened in stunned disbelief as the senior angel told him that this planet, small and unremarkable and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet: “Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince…went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball?  Why should he do a thing like that?”  The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.  “Do you mean to tell me, he said, “that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures on that floating ball?”  “I do, and I don’t think he would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice.  For, strange as it may seem to us, he loves them.  He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like him.”  The little angel looked blank.  Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted God’s son
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the wonder of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.