Born That We No More May Die

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

Philippians 2:5-11, John 11:17-27

One of the things about turning 50 is that it causes you to get a little bit nostalgic. One of the birthday presents I got a couple of weeks ago was a little booklet that outlined all the stuff that was around and popular in 1963, but what’s even more interesting about that is all the stuff we have now that was still a futuristic dream back then: microwave ovens, cell phones, home computers, and the internet. It’s amazing to think that we actually lived without those things at one time, isn’t it?

I mean, what would life be like without Google, for example? Back in the day we used to wait for the newspaper to show up on the doorstep or wait for Walter Cronkite to tell us what was going in the world after supper time. As kids, we did research using the encyclopedia and looked up books in the card catalog (with actual cards). Now, in just a finger clicks, we can have nearly all the information in the world at our finger tips—“Google” being a verb as much as it is a noun. Need an answer? Just Google it!

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.”

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →