Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See

Second in an Advent series on the theology in Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Colossians 1:15-20John 1:1-18

live nativityAbout ten years ago, I was preparing a sermon for yet another Christmas Eve, trying to come up with another way to express the mystery of the incarnation: God becoming flesh in Jesus. That’s always the difficult task for the preacher during this season: trying to say something new in the midst of a story that’s very old and very familiar—so much so that people often miss the meaning under all the layers of Christmas tradition.

That year, however, I found an illustration that really spoke to me about the reality that John speaks of in today’s Gospel lesson: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The story was from a small church on another Christmas Eve, where another sanctuary was packed to standing room only. That year, this particular church had decided to have a living nativity in front of the church while the service was going one, including the presence of a real, live baby in the manger instead of the usual, predictable and quiet baby doll. As the pastor was preaching his sermon, the baby did what babies tend to do—he filled his diaper to overflowing (every parent in here knows what that means!). Pretty soon, the disgusting smell began to waft through the crowded, warm sanctuary, causing people to wrinkle and plug their noses, their eyes watering from the stench—all right in the middle of the sermon.

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A Christmas Life: The Real Saint Nicholas

On the day Christians celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas, a look at the history and hagiography surrounding his life can teach us a lot about what it means to live a Christmas life…

Titus 2:11-14

The little seaside town of Demre, in Turkey, isn’t exactly the North Pole. It rarely snows there. Palm trees and orange groves dot the landscape. You won’t hear sleigh bells here, just the sound of the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets of the town mosques. No reindeer live here, and elves are extremely rare. NORAD won’t paying much attention to Demre this Christmas Eve, and most folks wrapping presents to put under the tree won’t give it a thought, either. In fact, virtually no one living in Demre celebrates Christmas, and yet this little town is the second most important town in the world next to Bethlehem when it comes to Christmas

See, Demre is the hometown of the original Saint Nicholas, who was born near there sometime in the late third century AD. There’s an old 8th century Church of St. Nicholas there that once housed the saint’s bones, and even though it is only active as a church one day a year (St. Nicholas Day, December 6), tourists come from around the world to see the birthplace of the one most of them know as Santa Claus.

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The War on Christmas: A Festivus for the Rest of Us!

Photo from http://thepublicqueue.com/2012/war-on-christmas-can-god-be-kept-out/

Photo from http://thepublicqueue.com/2012/war-on-christmas-can-god-be-kept-out/

It’s as certain as candy canes, evergreens, and Starbucks gingerbread lattes every year at this time–it’s the annual squawking about “The War on Christmas.” Certain people are getting into an indignant kerfuffle over the fact that some retailers and even regular people might actually say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” To wit, I offer the following from the news:

• Back in 2005, John Gibson, who now hosts a radio show on Fox News, came out with a book  titled The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Holiday is Worse Than You Thought. In this book he talks about how “secularists” have tried to ban the word “Christmas” from stores, schools and government as a means of pushing Christianity back underground. This year, Sarah Palin has joined in with her own book, Good Tidings of Great Joy which offers essentially the same argument. Bill O’Reilly keeps running a segment on his Fox show on how the “War” is going.

•  The American Family Association calls for annual consumer boycotts of stores that advertise “holiday” specials instead of explicitly using the word “Christmas.” This year, it’s Radio Shack who’s getting the Christmas kaibosh (I know what you’re thinking, because it’s the first thought I had…People still shop at Radio Shack?).

• Some tree retailers have gone to selling “holiday trees” rather than Christmas trees. Though, as one California Christmas tree grower says, “I don’t care what they call them as long as they buy them. Call them a weed if you want to.” No word on whether the trees stay greener when called “Christmas” trees vs. “holiday trees.”

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Hark How All the Welkin Rings

First in a series on the gospel in Charles Wesley’s famous carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”

Luke 2:8-15; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Christmas CarolOne of the dilemmas that preachers run into during Advent is which hymns to plan for the congregation to sing during the season. Liturgically speaking, Christmas hymns should be reserved for Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, while Advent is all about preparation. There are a couple of problems with this approach, however. One is that there just aren’t many Advent hymns to begin with—in fact, we’re pretty much singing them all today on the first Sunday of Advent (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”). A good songwriter could make some money writing some more decent Advent hymns, but nobody seems to want to do that because, as we all know, Christmas music is what people actually want to sing, even if it’s still November or even October. After all, no other holiday gets the airplay that Christmas does. You don’t see, for example, radio stations dedicating their full program schedule to Easter or Thanksgiving music.

So, even those of us who are liturgical legalists have to give in a bit during this season, but I also like to think that the preponderance of Christmas music also gives us an opportunity to think about the message that music conveys. Some Christmas music is just for fun (Frosty and Jingle Bells, for example, which really have nothing to do with Christmas); some of it is very sentimental (White Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas); and some of it is religious in tone, if not fact. Take “We Three Kings,” for example. That song, and not the Scripture, is why there are always three wise men (not kings) in every manger scene. I mean, biblically speaking, we don’t know how many magi there were, and they showed up two years later and in a different Gospel than the shepherds. When we have the kids put the figures in the manger scene each week during Advent, I always think they should put the wise men over in the closet and bring them out two months after Christmas. Then again, I’m a bit of a historical Grinch.

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Thoughts on Turning 50

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age, I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” Isaiah 46:4

Today is my birthday, and while most birthdays in the Kaylor household involve a trip to Chipotle for burritos and a couple of small presents, this is a fairly big one for me. Fifty is a big number, but I’m happy to say that I don’t feel 50 today (as if one would know what it feels like). Yes, the AARP card will surely arrive soon. Yes, retirement is on the distant horizon (and yes, I’m paying more attention to my pension!). And, yes, the hair (what’s left of it) is gray-er. But rather than feeling “old,” today, I’m feeling grateful. The journey of life for me (so far) has been a real testimony to the verse above that God gave through Isaiah to the exiles of Judah–“I will carry and will save.” That’s been true for me since the beginning.

See, I was born as a mistake.  I emerged into the world on December 1, 1963 at Booth Memorial Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA, a Salvation Army hospital for unwed mothers (long since closed). From what I could piece together through research and the help of a case worker at the adoption agency in Indiana County, PA, my birth mother was a 24 year old student and my birth father an officer in the Salvation Army–that’s right, a clergyman. They weren’t married, which means that I was the result of clergy misconduct. Since I found that out a few years ago, the irony has never failed to astonish me. God used a mistake to put me where I am today–a clergyman who carries his Word, but who also recognizes the frailty of human sin, perhaps more than most. I carry all those genes within me.

But I’m happy to say on this half century birthday that my life has not been a mistake. Oh, it hasn’t been easy. I lost my adoptive mother when I was only 14, an event that radically shaped my life and our family. I got adopted again by a friend’s family when my own family fell apart. If you’re counting, that’s three different families that have been part of my life. My family tree looks like a forest. Through all that joy and heartache, however, God was always present, even when in my anger I pushed him to the background. God didn’t leave me when I joined the Army and put my anger to Uncle Sam’s use. He didn’t leave me when I went to college and stopped really going to church. He was there when Jennifer and I got married, and brought us back to church together several years later. He used that as an occasion to call me out of the Army life and into ministry, where I’ve been ever since–a place where today I feel like I was destined to be all along. It was no mistake.

My life is evidence that God can take a mistake and bless it. When I look at my wonderful, patient, and fabulous wife, and my fantastic, talented, and hilarious children, I am thankful beyond measure. For all my teachers and professors, mentors and friends–I know I have been blessed to God to have them in my life. When I think about all the people I’ve worked with and had the privilege of pastoring over the past 20+ years, I pray that God has used what was once a great mistake to work all things better for God’s good in their lives.

Isaiah wrote the above verse to a people in exile, people whose situation in life was the result of a mistake. And yet, even when they were far from home, God declared that he was still there, as he had been from their birth as a people. I want to tell you today that the last fifty years for me is evidence that when God promises something, he always follows through. And now, as I turn a little grayer, I know he will still be carrying me into the future. After all, God never makes mistakes!

That’s what I’m celebrating today–AARP card or no!