Monday, December 31, 2012

Is Christmas Over?

Manger and CrossChristmas Day in 1999 was on a Saturday. I preached at the three Christmas Services on Christmas Eve, then at the two Christmas morning services. Then I preached at the two Sunday morning services on December 26. I was pretty tired by Sunday afternoon – and a little glad that at least that part of Christmas was over.

That Sunday morning was the first time I noticed something. As I was driving into town to get to the church, I went past about a half dozen houses that had their Christmas trees lying at the curb of the streets.

It struck me as more than a little sad that people were throwing out their Christmas trees so soon after the presents were opened and the dinner was digested.

As the years have gone by, however, I feel a little more empathy to this idea. There is a sense of “being done” with Christmas – especially after such an early Thanksgiving. Our tree had to come down this weekend. Not because we wanted to be over and done with Christmas, but out of necessity. We cut down our tree at Richardson’s tree farm in Spring Grove the day after Thanksgiving. That was back on November 23! This past week –even though we’ve been diligent in watering the tree – it was dropping needles like crazy.

After the gifts have been unwrapped, after the visits are over with, after the leftovers are slim pickings, there is a sense of completion with Christmas by this weekend.

But even though we are mostly done with Christmas, something feels left undone.

This is the First Sunday of Christmas. Yes, Christmas is more than a day. It is a season. It is a short season – only 12 Days (hence the song) – that comes to a close with the Celebration of Epiphany on January 6.

In reality, we are only half-way through Christmas. Yet, the trees are coming down. Extended family is going home. All the movies have been watched – It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Most of the radio stations that have been playing Christmas music have gone back to regular programming.

I was sitting up last night reading in the glow of the Christmas tree lights and I felt that even though – for all intents and purposes –Christmas was over, I felt something has been left undone.

The Christmas story is glorious while at the same time familiar. Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Angels, Shepherds, and Gloria in Excelsis!

But that isn’t all there is to Jesus’ story. If all we do is listen to the Christmas story, by the time we get to the Shepherds returning to their fields and making plans to tell others about what they have seen, we really have only the beginning of the story.

It isn’t over, people. Christmas is just the beginning. If all we hear is the Christmas story, then we are left with a sense of “is that all there is?”

The answer is, “no, there is more!”

After Christmas comes Epiphany – the time we remember the presentations of Jesus. A better, more liturgical word would be “manifestations.” These manifestations are how Jesus was revealed as the Messiah, as the true Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world.

This short season of Christmas quickly turns to Epiphany.

And this year, Epiphany quickly turns to Lent.

Epiphany will begin with the Wise Men seeking Jesus, then quickly move to the Baptism of the adult Jesus and then, just as quickly, finish with the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Yes, there is more, much more, to this story of Jesus than just His birth that we celebrate at Christmas. After the Christmas story, about a month and a half after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought Him to the Temple and there met an old man named Simeon.

He was an old man by the time Jesus was born. He had been waiting for Christmas His whole life. That’s something to think about when we get impatient with the coming of Christmas in early December – as I remember being when I was a little boy! I couldn’t wait for Christmas to get here when I was young, feeling that the last two or three weeks were an eternity.

But Simeon had been waiting for possibly 70 years for Christmas to come.

He knew that it must be soon as he was getting up in years. He had the Lord’s promise that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).

After waiting so long, his story was nearing its end.

Finally, finally! It comes to completion for Simeon. The Spirit moved Simeon to be in the Temple the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in 40 days after His birth – to fulfill Mosaic Law.

Simeon’s response is glorious! It is a song the Church has been singing for centuries – usually after receiving the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. The song is titled “The Nunc Dimittus” – and we will sing it as most of us remember it being sung at the end of this worship service.

But let’s take a look at what Simeon says to Mary after this glorious song.

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Simeon celebrates his first Christmas! But already he understands that there is more to the story!

Simeon is talking about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Simeon is fulfilling his role as a prophet – foretelling that this child will grow up in order to fulfill God’s plan.

The wording is interesting. I think that the usual way of saying this phrase would be “rising and falling” – because you can’t fall until you rise. But Simeon – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – reverses this. He starts with falling and concludes with rising.

This tells us that Jesus will “make all things new.” He will tear down the established religions of men – all the false religions and traditions of people that only lead away from God. He will cause these to fall. He will bring it all down to the foundation and build anew.

As Jesus rises from the dead, He will raise us up as well. Yes, on the last day all will be raised – some to everlasting life and some to everlasting condemnation. But even now, Jesus is raising up a new people for Himself.

This is the Church, built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles – which is to say on God’s Word.

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection – His own “falling and rising” – we, too, will be made anew.

We make a lot of new things out of old. We call it recycling. This Christmas that quickly turns into Epiphany which will quickly turn into Lent, let’s recycle the wood we have used.

The manger that Mary used as a first crib for Jesus is no longer needed. Just like our Christmas trees that held the promise and hope of gifts and light and a glorious season are no longer need.

Let us recycle them, using the wood that once held the Promise into something – also wooden – that will hold the Promise again.

The manger – and our trees – can be recycled into a cross. For this Baby, whose birth we have celebrated, was born to be our substitute under the Law – fulfilling what was demanded of us but what we couldn’t do. He grew up to live the perfect life demanded. Then Jesus suffered and died on a cross – again, fulfilling the promise made “in the beginning” to Adam and Eve.

The cross – like the manger before it – held the Promised Messiah.

But the wood of the cross is also no longer needed. Jesus died “once, for all.”

So let’s recycle that wood yet again. We can use it build a vessel. An ark, if you will.

The Church is now being built – in each generation – on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. The manger once held the Promise. Then, too, the cross. Now the Church holds the promise of Jesus. But we also share the promise of Jesus with others.

Parts of Christmas may be over – the gift-giving, the trees, the leftovers, the visits. But the story is not yet complete.

And we still have a part to play in this story of Jesus – we are called to share the Good News of Jesus through our lives. Let’s do just that, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Get Back to Christmas

ChristmasMerry Christmas! It is my prayer that as we celebrate today, God would shower His blessings on us in such measure that we will flood our world with His love and peace as we anticipate the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ!

I’ve heard quite a bit lately the sentiment to “get back” to a more real Christmas. By “real” I think many people are thinking “simple” and “less commercial.”

This is a noble pursuit, but I wonder if we really understand just what that might entail. I suspect that it will also lead us to focus on the wrong things about Christmas and its season.

Today, we have gathered together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ! We have gathered together in Jesus’ name to worship our God who loves us! That’s about a “real” as Christmas could ever get!

Speaking of getting back” let’s look at the first verse of the Christmas Day Gospel – John 1:1.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. – John 1:1

With John’s Gospel we get all the way back to the Creation! John’s Gospel begins with the same words as the Book of Genesis, “in the beginning.

And look what is there! The first thing God says, according to Genesis 1, is “Let there be light!” There was darkness, and then there was light! Then there was darkness again – the darkness of sin.

But the creative light of God is not so easily dimmed!

On a dark night, over the fields of the little town of Bethlehem many thousands of years after creative light was spoken into existence, the skies exploded again with light!

A joyous light, and a message of song from the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

We sing the same song – as the Gloria in Excelsis – in many of our worship services to remind us that Jesus – the Light of the World – was born to be our substitute. In that sense, every Sunday is a little celebration of Christmas!

A lot of momentous things happen in the dark where, when light shines, it shines very bright.

In the Old Testament:

· The Creation of the World

· The First Passover

· The Victory of Gideon over the Midianites & Amelekites

But even more momentous, in the New Testament:

· The Birth of Jesus Christ

· The Death of Jesus Christ

· The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

The reason, I think, that all these momentous things happened “in the dark” – especially the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus – is because darkness is sometimes defined as the absence of light. For a Christian, then, there is no darkness because Christ forever shines in our hearts; we are reminded of this at every baptism and the giving of a candle.

And in the dark, light shines the brightest! This is especially so with the Light of the Word – Jesus Christ!

I’ve got even better news than the light shines on this Christmas morning! The Light comes to each one of you!

Now, you have two choices when it comes to what do to with the Light you receive. 1) Accept Jesus as He comes to you; or 2) reject Him because he doesn’t fit your idea of what the Messiah should be.

There is only one Jesus. And He’s not some good person. He’s not some moral teacher. He’s not some figment of a church’s imagination. He is – and always has been and always will be – the True Son of God! He was before the foundation of the world – which is exactly what John’s Gospel tells us in verse one. He was born of a Virgin Mary, in the family tree of King David and a descendent of Abraham. He lived a perfect life. Yes, tempted to sin as we are, but was, in fact, without sin. Still, He died a sinners death on the cross – also bearing the punishment of God for sin – for us! Three days after His death Jesus rose from the dead. Again, this took place before dawn on the first day of the week (therefore, in the dark!). And He ascended into Heaven with the promise that He would be with us always and would return to take us and all believers to heaven.

That’s who Jesus is. We either accept Him as He is or we reject Him as He is.

We can reject Him by trying to make Jesus into something He isn’t. Just some moral teacher or good person who had the unfortunate luck to get Himself killed. This shouldn’t surprise us, that people reject Jesus because He doesn’t fit their idea of a savior or messiah.

9The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11

It is being done today, isn’t it? It is being done by removing prayer and Bibles from schools. It is being done by making pronouncements that terror happens because God is angry with us. It is done today by dismissing the importance of worship and the fellowship of Bible study.

We have these two choices: accept Jesus as He comes to us (and, in so doing, do what He tells us to do as His followers) or reject Him because He doesn’t fit our idea of a savior or doesn’t fit into our lifestyle.

I give thanks to God that He is forgiving and merciful, and gives us these times of celebration to remember the glory of His Light.

The glory of Jesus as the Light of the Word born on Christmas is that He is full of grace. He was born, lived, died, rose and ascended to give us full, abundant and everlasting life!

And the truth is that He continues to be with us as the Son of God, as our savior from sin, and as our true and dearest friend.

No matter what we do, that grace and that truth remains – because He didn’t come because of anything we did and He doesn’t stay because of anything we do!

I know, we still try to convince ourselves that God loves us because of something we do – whether it is a certain style of worship, or whether is it based on what we give in the offering, or it is because of where we go to church or are a member.

But the truth is that God’s loves you and me in spite of us!

This is the Truth of Christmas. It is, I think, what people mean when they wish we could “get back” to the real meaning of Christmas. For many, the true Light of Christmas is dimmed by all the commercialism we see nowadays.

But this is nothing new.

Centuries ago the Puritans we hear so much about at Thanksgiving thought that they were ruining Christmas with all their pagan rituals. They especially objected to the fact that the holiday usually came on a week day, therefore distracting people, they thought, from the Lord's Day of Sunday. But they did more than annually complain about it as we do. They took action and got rid of Christmas altogether! In Puritan settlements across 17th century America a law was passed outlawing the celebration of Christmas. The market place was ordered to stay open for business as though it was no special occasion and all violators were prosecuted. It was against the law to even make plum pudding on December 25th. The celebration was not referred to as Yuletide but as fooltide.

So we want to reform Christmas and clean it up, do we? Well, is this how far we want to go? Do we really want to be rid of it altogether? Then will Christmas, as the Puritans thought, be saved from us and our sinful ways. So what if we spend $40 billion annually on presents. Can you think of a better way of spending all that money than on gifts of love? And most of them are just that. And so what if all the lights and tinsel do is create a fairy tale setting that soon disappears as does the so-called Christmas spirit. At least it lets us know, if only for a brief time, what life can be like if we only try.

So let the message ring out this day, not that we are destroying this holy day, but rather, that we can never destroy this day – and instead will receive the Person Who’s birth we celebrate as He comes to us!. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year...
-          Vince Guaraldi – Lee Mendelson

This song has been a part of my Christmas my whole life – literally. I was born in 1965 and that was the same year that A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on CBS-TV. It is hard to imagine a Christmas in the United States without watching this beloved special. 50 million people are estimated to have watched it in 1965 and it has retained such ratings through the 47 years since.

At the heart of A Charlie Brown Christmas is, ironically enough, depression. Young Charlie Brown finds himself in a deep funk at Christmas time. Even though it is a white Christmas, even though there are presents, decorations, and all that we’re taught goes into making Christmas Christmas, Charlie Brown is not happy. He feels he should be, but can’t quite figure out why he is not.

Even though Charlie Brown is 7 or 8 years old, he’s an “every man.” He embodies the feelings of so many at this time of year. It is sad that so many people are depressed at what is supposed to be a joyous time of year. It isn’t hard to imagine why, though, is it? The stress and anxiety caused by difficult economic times, or the sadness of facing a Christmas for the first time without a loved one, certainly make Christmas a less-than-joyful time of year.

If you turn on the TV, you will be bombarded with the messages that all it takes to make Christmas Christmas will be “stuff.” A new car, new clothes, a bigger and better TV, cologne, perfume, a computer tablet, or simply money, money, money will put you in the proper Christmas mood.

This commercialism is bemoaned of in A Charlie Brown Christmas and, before that, Miracle on 34th Street, and even A Christmas Carol.

Charlie Brown’s beagle, Snoopy, is getting into the commercial mood of Christmas. Then there is Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally. Even his five- or six-year-old sister has been indoctrinated into the commercialism of Christmas. Even though she can’t write to Santa Claus herself, she does dictate the letter to her older brother and closes with a plan to make things easy on Santa, suggesting to him that he simply bring “$10’s and $20’s” as her Christmas presents!

I don’t have a problem with commerce. Bartering, buying and selling have been around for nearly as long as there have been people. And the topic of money is an important topic in the Bible, as it is mentioned over 2000 times (according to the website accessed December, 2012).

Like most things, the problem lies in the mire of over-indulging in commercialism. Sally has made Christmas all about “getting all you can get while the getting is good” (actually a quote from the sequel to A Charlie Brown Christmas called It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown). Snoopy feels Christmas is another opportunity to win big prizes (by decorating).

Ironically enough, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was originally aired with several product placements by its original sponsor – Coca Cola – which made it difficult to edit for future airings (resulting in several scenes cut out entirely).

Charlie Brown seeks answers from Lucy – the neighborhood psychologist. Interestingly enough, Lucy diagnoses Charlie Brown’s problem as having to do with fear. She tries to find out what Charlie Brown is afraid of.

It seems to me that some people have trouble with Christmas because they are afraid – afraid of being alone, afraid of unrequited love, afraid of missing out of the joy they feel should be a part of the season. These are all understandable fears, to me at least. I feel that way because they are very real fears.

Lucy’s prescription for Charlie Brown is “involvement” – by which she means he should direct the Christmas Play. With this suggestion, Charlie Brown’s heart begins to melt and a genuine smile appears on his face for the first time.

Still, Charlie Brown hasn’t quite figured out what is missing. Even though it is clear that the Christmas play is the story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (there are shepherds, animals, an innkeeper and his wife, who has naturally curly hair), something is missing. The kids seem to know their parts and the parts that go with the story, but all they are interested in is dancing (having a good time).

Charlie Brown tries to capture the proper mood to get the play going – by providing a Christmas tree. But upon presenting a real Christmas tree, his fear comes crashing in on him when all the kids ridicule him and even his own dog rejects his contribution to the play.

In a final, desperate, act of supplication Charlie Brown cries out “Isn’t there anyone that can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

Linus chimes in with the true meaning of Christmas. He recites – from memory – the immortal words of the Gospel:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.”

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Yes, Christmas includes parties, presents, and poems set to music. It includes family and friends getting together, special movies and TV shows, lights and decorations.

But at its heart, Christmas is about alleviating fear. The fear of being alone, the fear of being rejected, the fear of being forever in despair.

Because those fears where exactly where the human race was, and was forever heading, unless God did something about it. And so God promised He would. And so God did as He promised.

Jesus Christ was born in the little town of Bethlehem. He grew up to live a perfect life. Then He took all the sins of the world on Himself and died on the cross. Three days later Jesus rose victorious from the dead – thus assuring all those who believe in Him would also rise from the dead one day. And then Jesus ascended into heaven but not before promising that He would return to take all those who have faith in Him to heaven with Him.

That’s what Christmas – that’s what Christ – is all about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Anticipating Christmas

In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – which premiered on CBS-TV in 1972 – Sally bemoans the fact that she couldn’t go down to the store and by a “Turkey” tree because all the store had were things for Christmas. Her older brother, Charlie Brown, exclaims, “Christmas? Already?”

It seems that every year since then, stores have been rolling out their Christmas items and sales as early as late September.

Then there are the radio stations that devote their entire music programming to Christmas music – you know the ones I mean. They start the week or two before Thanksgiving and run through Christmas day or a few days after.

When I was an announcer / DJ at KFUO in St. Louis in the late 1980’s, I was given strict orders on the playing of Christmas music. None before December 1. Then, the first week of December I could play one Christmas song per shift, the second week I could play one Christmas song per hour, the third week, two Christmas songs per hour and the week before Christmas I could play three Christmas songs per hour. Christmas Eve we could finally play ALL Christmas songs.

Things have changed these days, that’s for sure.

Of course, you know that I absolutely LOVE the Advent and Christmas seasons. Our home is decorated with Blonski traditional decorations and I have my office decorated as well. I have Christmas music on in my office and at home. I look forward to producing my Classical Christmas radio program each year – and that airs from the day after Thanksgiving through to December 26 or so.

For me, the anticipation of Christmas is an integral part of the joy of this season. Shopping for the perfect gift, preparing the Advent and Christmas messages that I’ll preach or post on my blog, decorating, hosting get-togethers and attending others – all of this is part of my anticipation of Christmas.

Anticipation and expectation often are fused into one in many people. And when an expectation isn’t met, disappointment can quickly foul a mood.

I used to anticipate/expect a white Christmas each year and when it didn’t happen – as has been the case these past couple of years, especially – I would be in a funk.

But living in Southern California for four Christmases pretty much cured me of that, because you should not expect a white Christmas in the San Gabriel valley, where we lived. The mountains, yes, but not down at 1600 feet above sea level where our house was.

You need to be careful with anticipation and expectations – they should be reasonable and realistic. The older I get – and hopefully more mature – I tend to alter my expectations. I don’t necessarily lower my expectations so much as I “shift” them.

Today, a week before Christmas, let’s look at how we anticipate Jesus Christ.

As you read the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus did NOT meet the expectations of many, many people. He certainly DID meet the expectations of the Old Testament, but there was a disconnect with the people of 1st Century Israel.

His cousin John the Baptist even succumbed to the temptation to expect something “else” from Jesus. He was languishing in Herod’s prison, knowing that he’d probably die there very soon. He sends some of his disciples to Jesus to get some reassurance.

John’s fear was that he might have been mistaken in who he was looking for in the Messiah he was sent to prepare the way for.

I don’t know what John expected Jesus to tell him, but we do know what Jesus said, “tell John what you have seen and heard...” Jesus sends word back to John and says, basically, “Why look for another? I’m the one you expected and anticipated!”

What do we expect Jesus to be? The temptation at this time of year is to focus so much on the infant in a manger that we forget or even miss that the baby grew up, taught and preached and healed and loved for three years and then died a horrible death on a Roman cross.

The infant in a manger is, perhaps, easier for us to expect. It’s safe. In that manger, Jesus doesn’t talk, and so He can’t make demands of us and our time and things. He just sits there looking all cute and cuddly.

In other words, we are tempted to believe we can control or manage the infant Jesus. The music is beautiful, the decorations are warm and inviting, but what is expected of us is, at best, manageable and reasonable.

But with this kind of expectation we are sorely let-down, because this expectation doesn’t solve the stress, depression, anxiety or any of the other negative effects of the Christmas Holiday season.

This kind of expectation can lead to regarding worship and the fellowship of Bible study as a “take-it-or-leave-it” kind of proposition – with most opting for the “leave-it” part. This is not what God intended when the 3rd Commandment was laid down as law, nor what His inspired writers would say about gathering together for the breaking of bread, prayer and fellowship.

Thanks be to God that the infant Jesus was not all we got. We got the “whole package” of salvation – Jesus was born, He lived, died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

We live this salvation each time we worship – all the elements of it are in our worship services along with the Word of God and – every other week – the Sacrament of Holy Communion (where we digest the Word of God for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation).

The music, the sights, the sounds, and the warmth of this holiday season can be a wonderful part of the expectation – Godly expectation – of our salvation. We need to keep the package together, though.

That’s what we get with Jesus – a complete package that needs to be received and used.

Here’s what I’d like you to do. Make plans now to participate in worship. Not just attend, but be an active participant in worship. And then make plans to participate in a Bible study – we have several here at the church but you can also do one at home with your family. Finally, make plans to have a personal or family devotion time – use the Portals of Prayer or the Lutheran Hour devotions we have here on the church office counter, or use one of your own.

Now, I can’t make any promises or guarantees about what will happen if you do all this – but God can and does: For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

And God’s Word also promises, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

Hold God to these promises as we anticipate Christmas and consider our expectations of this time of year. In Jesus’ name, amen.