Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

English: Landscape with St John the Evangelist...

Landscape with St. John the Evangelist–Image courtesy Wikipedia

There is plenty of darkness in the Christmas story.  Here is a sermon that joins the story of Herod with the story of the dragon in Revelation 12.  I originally wrote it for Advent, but these are texts that are also appropriate after Christmas.  If you are preaching on Matthew 2:13-18, the massacre of  the children, it is fruitful to reflect also on the image of the dragon in Revelation 12.  The agents of the dragon are still on the loose and still seeking to devour God’s children.  Inspired by an article entitled “O Holy Nightmare” that I read in Sojourners Magazine  (see citation below).  I wrote this sermon in December of 2000.  Our situation is much the same.  Just update some of the names that the dragon wears…

A Christmas Vision
A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-18 and Revelation 12

The Christmas story thoroughly engages the imagination.  When we imagine the scene in Luke of shepherds seeking and finding the newborn in the manger, with angels hovering, and when we imagine Matthew’s story of the wise men bowing low with humble joy, it is possible to forget.  It is possible to forget—just for a little while—that there is another terrifying presence in this story, a malevolent presence that would like nothing better than to destroy the child.

But the Christmas story in the book of Revelation will not allow us to forget it.   There the story is anything but peaceful and serene.  The mother is crying out in hard labor.  And crouched in front of her is a huge red, seven-headed dragon, ready to spring and devour the child as soon as it is born.  Believe it or not, this really is a vision about the birth of Christ—and, as we’ll see—about his death and his resurrection and his ascension.

The child is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior.  He is born to Mary, of course.  And he is also born to Eve, the mother of all living, whose children tread on the head of the snake.  And he is also born to Israel, to the people of God, who shine as twelve stars in the mother’s crown.

The dragon is the ancient serpent, says John, one and the same as the snake we first met in Genesis.  It is Satan, a word that literally means the adversary of God.  It is the devil.  It is the accuser, the one who points at God’s children and laughs and laughs and declares over and over again, “Guilty!  Guilty!  Guilty!”  It is the great deceiver of all humanity.

This is no silly looking devil in red tights.  This dragon is everything evil all rolled up into one great malevolent force.  It is the worst monster you can imagine, covered with heads and horns and crowns that John and his first readers would recognize as symbols of its power.

'Finster---Great Red-Dragon' photo (c) 2007, Marshall Astor - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/This dragon is capable of dragging the very stars out of the sky.  You don’t believe it?  Just ask Ann Weems, who writes this in the preface of her book of prayers of grief: “On August 14, 1982, the stars fell from my sky.  My son, my Todd, had been killed less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday.  August 14, 1982…and I still weep.”  (Ann B. Weems, Psalms of Lament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p. xv.)

This dragon is crouched, eager to devour all the children of Eve, and even more eager to devour THE Son, the one who can save all the rest.  And in every age it has raised up terrible monsters to do its bidding.  Think of the beasts in power when Jesus was literally born in Bethlehem, and in particular the beast named Herod.  He was more than troubled when visitors from the East informed him that somewhere out there lay an infant, born to be king of the Jews.  What did Herod do?  He reached into his same old bag of tricks.  Here was a monster who had three of his own sons murdered, and one of his wives, and any number of his administrative people.

Herod’s response to the birth announcement?  Plot murder.  That child must be devoured!  “Go find the baby,” he directed the visitors from the East, “and bring me word, so that I can go and worship him, too.”  Herod sent them after names, addresses, physical descriptions.  Would the wise men get caught up in the dragon’s doings?

Herod was one in a long line of agents of the dragon.  The line stretched back to people like Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who enslaved all the Israelites, who ordered all Israelite boy babies to be murdered.  And there was Nebuchanezzar of Babylon and his fiery furnace.  As Jeremiah the prophet put it in chapter 51, the inhabitants of Zion, Jerusalem shall say, “King Nebuchanezzar of Babylon has devoured me, he has crushed me, he has swallowed me like a monster…”  And there was Darius, king of the Medes, and his pit of devouring lions.  History is full of these characters.

In John of Patmos day, Rome was a great beast and its emperors agents of the dragon, bearing names like Caligula, and Nero, and Domitian, and under them, Christ’s children paid for their faithfulness to him.  They were despised, rejected, denied economic opportunity, and yes, at times, literally devoured by wild beasts.

In every age, the dragon has its agents.  In our living memory, they have borne names like Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic.  And don’t forget all the non-famous people that do the dragon’s bidding, preying on others, making life miserable for others, gobbling them up economically or emotionally if not literally.

The dragon doesn’t always roar, though.  The ancient serpent is always crouched nearby.  It slithers into every heart, where it drums up arrogance, hatred, cynicism, destructive thoughts and attitudes of all kinds.  “I’m not the problem,” its victims say.  “Its those other people those people who…” you fill in the blank.  The dragon loves to get people thinking that way.  It smacks its lips.  And it knows that even if these people don’t actively support the big monsters, they can easily be persuaded to look the other way.

There is no question.  That dragon is still around, and it can still drag the stars out of the sky.  There is SO MUCH PAIN as we approach Christmas this year.  (more…)


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ScanHere is the sermon I preached on Christmas Day last year.  It points out the great contrast between the king who slept in the animals’ trough in Bethlehem and the king who slept in luxury in the palace in Jerusalem.

Little Bethlehem
A Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 2:1-15
Christmas Day

One of King Herod’s palaces towered above Bethlehem.  One of his many massive and opulent building projects, which included the Jerusalem Temple, this palace was called the Herodium.  He it named for himself.  You could see it for miles around, and it was a feat of architecture and engineering.  Herod literally removed the mountain that was next to it.  The Herodium was taller than the Egyptian pyramids.  Among its marvels was a huge pool in the midst of dry, dusty desert.  There’s a drawing of what the Herodium probably looked like in the book that the Fellowship Sunday School class read during Advent. (See The Journey by Adam Hamilton.)

Herod wielded the power of wealth, and he wielded the power of fear.  To get rid of all possible challengers, he spilled blood and more blood.  He even had several members of his own family executed.  Fights went on over who Herod’s successor might be, but of course there could be no successor except the one he chose.

As powerful as Herod was, an even greater power loomed above him.  The Roman Empire had put Herod where he was.  The emperor could flick him off like a flea, but he proved useful.  Rome extracted resources from all the peoples it had conquered and controlled its holdings through threat and fear.  Herod was part of that enterprise.  And one of Rome’s weapons against any who might rebel was the cross.

Down below Herod’s palace lay the little town of Bethlehem.  Its name meant “house of bread,” and its bakeries may have supplied Jerusalem a few miles away.  It was a town of ordinary, working class people who lived in simple dwellings.  Up in the Herodium, Herod had lots and lots of rooms, including a 900-seat theater.  But most of them had only two or three.  They kept their animals in shelters attached to their homes.  Sometimes these were caves down under the main living quarters.  The people of Bethlehem were doing their best to get on with living under the shadow of the Herodium, and of the cruel King who built it, and of the empire that stood over him.  And they were longing for something better.

Longing for something better just like the prophet Micah and the people of his day, when it was the Assyrian empire extracting money from Judah.  And the rich and powerful passed the cost right on down to those who could least afford it.  Sounds familiar.  Micah declared, “Out of you, Bethlehem, yes you, shall come a ruler who will feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, and they shall live securely, and he shall be the One of peace.”  What a contrast this ruler would be!  And he was on his way, Micah said.

A young woodworker named Joseph who hailed from Bethlehem had recently returned there to be registered for a census ordered by the Roman Emperor.  Once again Rome was jerking the chains of the people it held.  It was the worst possible time to make this trip.  Joseph’s fiancée, Mary, was in the final stages of pregnancy.  It is hard to imagine a more miserable journey. Nine days of hard travel on top of the many late pregnancy discomforts Mary was coping with.  When they arrived, the town was full of extra people there for the same reason they were.  It was a struggle to accommodate everyone.  When she went into labor, it was a struggle to find a place for Mary to give birth.  The only available space was in the animals’ shelter.

On the night after Jesus was born, Bethlehem’s lowliest citizens, shepherds, were out doing their job, when an angel, a messenger from heaven startled them with the news that the longed-for ruler had arrived.  “Don’t be afraid,” the messenger said.  “I’ve got good news for you and for everybody.  Unto you is born this day a Savior, Christ the Lord.  You will find him swaddled and lying in a manger.”

The power above all powers had arrived, but he had slipped into the world in a very small way, a downright weak way, a human way.  God himself was born, just like each of us.  But not in Caesar’s palace in Rome.  Not in Herod’s palace above Bethlehem.  Not even in the biggest, most famous, most visited worship place around, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus was born in the little town called House of Bread.  Already God was turning things upside down, just as Mary’s song says.  And while Caesar and Herod and their cronies were feeding off of other people, the newborn bread of life slept in a feeding trough.  (more…)

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Bethlehem Gate

Image by almasudi via Flickr

In earlier posts I’ve shared ideas for doing Vacation Bible School creatively and inexpensively.  Click here for a review of a curriculum that focuses on clean water and living water.  Click here for a post about ways our church has done VBS on a shoestring and a list of some more resources.

Here’s an idea for using summer VBS to look more deeply at the Christmas stories.  This past Advent, one of our adult Sunday School classes enjoyed Adam Hamilton’s book and five-session dvd study entitled The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem.  In the dvd Hamilton takes viewers to see Nazareth and Bethlehem and the likely route Mary and Joseph took on their journey.  A youth edition and a children’s edition of the study are also available.  You can see them all on the Cokesbury website.

While I haven’t reviewed the youth edition, I do have a copy of the children’s edition, written by Daphna Flegal, and it is full of great ideas and reproducible materials, readily adaptable to just about any situation.  Here are its contents:

  • Art Show (invitation)
  • Suggestions for an All-Church Event
  • Lesson 1: Mary
  • Lesson 2: Joseph
  • Lesson 3: Elizabeth
  • Lesson 4: The Journey to Bethlehem
  • Lesson 5: The Shepherds

With all these materials you could plan a VBS for ages four through adult.

Image: Bethlehem Gate

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57//365I love the fact that Jesus arrived in such a gentle way, and in the midst of such painful circumstances.  Many of our folks are in painful circumstances and need him to come to them gently this Christmas to soothe and to heal.  All we need is “a little Christmas.”

A Mustard Seed Christmas

A Sermon on Luke 13:18-19, Psalm 137:1-4 and Luke 2:1-7

(Inspired by a meditation by Charlene Fairchild titled “A Mustard Seed Christmas,” gleaned from the Kir-Shalom website.  Unfortunately the link, found on one of the Holy Christmas pages, is currently broken.)

There are times when it’s hard to sing.  There are times when an ache in the body or soul becomes an ache in the throat when you try to sing.  That was what God’s people experienced when they lost their home, Jerusalem, and were carried into exile in Babylon.  “Let’s hear one of your hymns of Zion,” the Babylonians teased the homesick people.  “How can we sing God’s song here?” they cried.  They couldn’t!  They put away their musical instruments.

It was the same years later when they finally were allowed to go home.  They wanted to be able to sing songs of rejoicing when they reached Jerusalem, but they just couldn’t.  They stared at the ruins of what had been their houses and God’s house, the temple, and tears flowed all over again.

They were home, but found that they were still in the shadowlands of grief. It is the same now when our lives are disrupted.   How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  Israel mourns in exile!

Indeed, the land of grief is a strange land.  How can we sing “Joy to the World,”—I mean really sing it from the heart—without our life’s partner at our side, without those irreplaceable people we have lost?  How can we sing when our hearts are heavy with concern and worry?  Everyone else seems to be busy and happy, but the thought of pasting on a smile and pretending to be joyful is distinctly unappetizing.

Just when Mary needed to be at home in familiar surroundings with caring people as her due date drew near, the powers that be mandated a journey.   Joseph and Mary became temporary exiles.  It was not a jolly journey to Bethlehem.  It is hard to imagine a more uncomfortable ride: to be nine months pregnant, bumping along on the back of a donkey.  And then to go into labor in a strange place with nowhere to go.

The birth of Jesus went largely unnoticed in all the hubbub of the tax registration.  The revelation of his birth was given only to a few shepherds—nobodies, inconsequential people.  It was a small, fragile beginning for God’s act of salvation.  Jesus truly was vulnerable.  King Herod came close to succeeding in eliminating him.  If Joseph hadn’t been listening for a word from God…Thank goodness he listened!

God’s way is often small and quiet.  God often works in a mustard seed sort of way.  The very kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone planted, a grown-up Jesus declared later.  From the tiniest of all seeds, a great, hospitable tree grows!  God grows his kingdom from tiny, humble beginnings.   God planted a tiny, vulnerable mustard seed in Bethlehem.  Yet the Virgin’s tiny boy is the Lord of the universe!

Maybe what we need when we cannot rejoice in a big way at Christmas is a mustard seed Christmas.  (more…)

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Floor mosaic Strage degli Innocenti (Slaughter...

Matteo di Giovanni, floor mosaic, Cathedral of Siena (detail)

The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year A is filled with pain, and so are many people’s hearts this Christmas.  Here is a sermon I preached on this text in January of 2002.  Circumstances made it necessary to delay this sermon until Baptism of the Lord, which was also a communion Sunday for us.

Rachel’s Tears
A Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 with allusions to Isaiah 25:6-9 and Revelation 21:1-4

One person can cause unbelievable amounts of pain, especially if a few people cooperate and a lot of people look the other way.  No wonder all Jerusalem was disturbed when the Wise Men brought the news of a baby King of the Jews.  All Jerusalem knew what King Herod was capable of if he felt there was the least threat to his position.  Already he had ordered the execution of one of his wives, her mother, several of his sons, three hundred of his court officials, and countless others.  Later, shortly before his death, Herod ordered the imprisonment of a number of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem.  At the moment of his death, all these innocents were killed, so that there would be weeping and wailing in Judea.  Herod was well aware that no one would mourn his passing.

What did the lives of the children of Bethlehem matter to Herod?  Compared to the rivers of blood he had already spilled, what did he care about the blood of the twenty or so infants and toddlers that lived in the village?  When the Wise Men failed to return with the intelligence Herod needed to zero in on Jesus, he ordered his soldiers to search out and destroy every child in Bethlehem age two and under.  Jesus would surely be among them.

In a dream, Joseph received a warning about this evil plan.  In a flash he was up, waking Mary, and hurrying to pack a few essentials.  There was no time for more.  In the dead of night they slipped away as quietly and as quickly as they could, leaving everything behind.  Now they were refugees.  Now they would have to find a way to survive in a strange land.  Joseph would have to start all over again: find food, find shelter, find work.  Jesus’ earliest memories would be not of home, but of Egypt.

Soon there was weeping and wailing all over Bethlehem.  (more…)

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Rech St.Luzia Fenster742

Image via Wikipedia

There is a shepherd in Matthew’s Christmas story, and it is easy to read right over him.  Here is a Christmas sermon that points him out.

Our Shepherd Is Born
A Sermon on Matthew 2:6, Matthew 9:35-36, and Luke 2, with allusions to Isaiah 40 and Ezekiel 34.

If the people are sheep and the leaders are shepherds, then the world Jesus was born into was struggling under the rule of two very bad shepherds.   The propaganda of the day declared that Caesar Augustus is son of God, lord and savior and bringer of peace on earth.  You can still see this message etched in stone in Roman ruins.  What Rome called “peace” could be more accurately called “forced order.”  Maybe it was a kind of peace, but what it means for the people was relentless oppressive taxation.  It meant the threat of torture and death.  Crucified bodies lined the roads—the message being: this will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.  The Empire jerked all its subject peoples around.  That’s what’s happening when Joseph hitches up his donkey, lifts a very pregnant Mary up on it, and leads it the hundred miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register.  Roman orders.

King Herod was a henchman to the Romans.  Rome ceded some local authority to him, and he guarded it jealously.  History books list him as Herod the Great because he was a most impressive builder.  Under Herod the majestic temple in Jerusalem that Jesus visited was built.   Its remnants are still visible.  The Wailing Wall is left from Herod’s temple.  But Herod was also a butcher.  He assassinated members of his own family that might pose any challenge to him.  It was nothing to him to order the slaughter of Bethlehem’s little boys.  It was all in the name of security.  His.

Bad shepherds were nothing new.  Through the centuries people longed for a good shepherd, one who would feed the flock, not eat the flock.  One who could carry the flock, not exploit the flock.  One who would gently lead, not jerk people around.  One who would strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, seek the lost, feed the hungry. (more…)

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Cover of "Joyeux Noel (Widescreen)"

Cover of Joyeux Noel (Widescreen)

It is very difficult to kill the enemy once you have seen his face and discovered his humanity.  That is what happened during the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914, when French, British, and German troops came up out of their trenches and met one another in no man’s land.  And that is the point of Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), a beautiful film based on the accounts of those who were there.

The film begins with flashbacks of schoolchildren reciting nationalistic litanies of hate, and then shows the war interrupting people’s lives in Scotland, France and Germany.  Soon we see soldiers hunkered down in trenches and moving out here and there to slaughter each other.  The enemies are near enough to hear one another, and on Christmas Eve, the sound of music coming from the trenches of their foes catches their attention and arouses their curiosity.  The German soldiers begin to bring small Christmas trees decorated with lighted candles up out of their trenches.  Officers of the three armies meet and agree to a cease-fire for the evening.  Soldiers from all sides begin to come out and meet in the middle to exchange gifts of chocolate and wine.  They share photographs and stories of their families.  A priest with the Scottish unit celebrates a mass in Latin, expressing the Christian faith that is common to many.  The next morning over coffee the officers agree that their units will bury the dead from all sides on the day of Christ’s birth.  Later we see soldiers playing soccer together.  On the following day the commanders decide that they must now go their separate ways.  The commanders and troops are now extremely reluctant to shoot at one another.  Word of what has happened soon spreads.  The military and civil authorities are not pleased.  The commanders are reprimanded, and the units are broken up and moved to other fronts of the war.

In the film, the religious authorities are not pleased, either.  One of the storylines follows the Scottish priest who serves as a chaplain and stretcher-bearer.  He says very little during the film.  Most of his story is told in his face.  Early in the film, for example, we see his face fill with pain when the young men of his parish rejoice at the outbreak of war.  After the Christmas Truce we see him caring for a dying soldier in a hospital.  His bishop arrives, announces that he is to be sent back to his parish in Scotland, and rebukes him for his actions during the Truce.  The quiet priest responds, “The Lord Jesus Christ guided me in the most important mass of my life.  I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all.”  He listens as the bishop exhorts a group of new soldiers.  The bishop tells them that they are wielding the sword of the Lord on a holy crusade. The Germans “are not like us,” he declares, “and with God’s help you must kill them all so that it won’t have to be done again.”  While the bishop moves on with his liturgy, the priest removes his cross, hangs it up, and leaves the scene.

Joyeux Noel shows us what a small outbreak of peace looks like, and it longs for more.  O come to us, Prince of Peace, Prince de la Paix, Friedefürst.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” Luke 1:78-79.

**Joyeux Noël (2005) Rated PG-13, Sony Pictures.   If you’d like to read more about the Christmas Truce, see Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.  Plume Books, 2002.

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