Tag Archives: isaiah

Sermon: “Transforming Christmas” (Luke 2:1-14; Isaiah 9:2-7)

candles

It’s always so wonderful to see the sanctuary so blessedly alive as it is on Christmas Eve.

Some people are dedicated, eight o’clock service kind of people, and we expected you, and here you are, and we love that.

Others here are the kind who get everyone motivated and come with a whole pew’s worth of companions, sort of like modern-day shepherds, and of course, we love that, too.

And then some of you are people who managed to slip away from wherever you were and come to church.

At this very moment, back at your house, they still may not even know you’re gone.

We promise we won’t tell.

Sneaky devotion is a much bigger part of the Christian tradition than you’d ever believe, from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the house churches of modern China.

We love knowing that we may be just counter-cultural enough that someone still sees us as a secret to be kept, a people too scandalous to know.

But whether you have been long-planning to come or just find yourself here right now because you were driving by, you’ve come because tonight is the night when we tell the story.

We’ve been building up to it for weeks now—all around the world, we’ve been building up to it.

All around us at this time of year are reminders that Christmas touches us in ways that no other season quite does.

It speaks quite deeply to us to see lights in darkness, and greens indoors, and wreaths with red ribbons on doors—it’s as if the world decided to dress up for the occasion, and to make the kind of effort that is harder and harder to make these days.

We may not do it in other times of the year, but we’ll do it for Christmas.

II.

It’s one of the ways that we show that there is life in us yet—and memory, too.

The memory of Christmases past, maybe, when for so many people, the world seemed to come alive and there was so much celebrating to do—so much cooking and singing and zooming around after this or that.

Is that how you remember it?

So many people will look back and recall that there was just so much that went into it…that you could not help but get caught up in the rhythms of it…that you could not help but be delighted to see so many others you might not otherwise expect get caught up in it, too.

After all, if Ebenezer Scrooge could come around and get into Christmas, how could it be any surprise that others did too: the old lady in the apartment down the hall, who seemed to disapprove of children, making gingerbread men for your family, or a city bus driver, improbably wearing a Santa hat, or your grouchy and impatient great-grandfather, smiling as you brought him egg nog?

That might have been a long time ago, in a world we’ve long-since left.

But almost like veterans, squeezing into an old uniform on the morning of Memorial Day, we remember at Christmas—we remember, and we honor, and we try to be true to the memory of that other, bygone world.

And so, here we are, all these years later.

And if now the blazer has gotten a little snug, or if words were exchanged as you realized you were running a little late—if you discovered that, yet again, your brother-in-law has inattentively blocked in your car—or if your children have come home and were actually telling you about their lives, and in this great moment, out of the corner of your eye, you saw that your husband was discreetly checking his Blackberry and missed the whole thing—well, nevertheless: here we are now.

And may we each, in our way, find some way to connect with those Christmases past, and bring some of their warmth, and their surprise, and their belief in the capacity for deep transformation into our hearts and into our lives, not only tonight, but in the days to come.

Or maybe that’s not how you remember it.

Maybe as you look back, Christmas has always been at the center of a harder season—a time when tensions always used to boil over, or a time when all the things that weren’t right managed to engulf the few that were, and so, even now, even removed from all that, the cheer and the sentimental talk about togetherness gets hard to take.

That’s a Christmas prayer for transformation, too. A prayer to let our pain go, to travel lighter, to find the energy to follow a star rather than stay hunkered down in the darkness.

That’s a different kind prayer for deep transformation. But a prayer just the same.

And I think that has its place at Christmas, too.

III.

Because that’s what the Christmas story is, of course.

It’s a story of deep transformation.

It begins with a world where hope has come to be in short supply and says that God is present in it, and that, therefore, hope should be, too.

It begins with a world where so much is wrong that it seems as if nothing could ever be put right, and says that God insists that, indeed, it can be put right, and if we will but follow Him, it will be put right.

It begins with a world that looks to appearances and to worldly power, and sees them full of selfishness and danger, and says that God is the antithesis of all of that—and yet that it is He who saves and nothing else.

That world, of course, doesn’t sound all that different from our own.

Maybe that gives us pause.

The Christmas story is an old, old story now—and yet it seems as if the world has not particularly changed in its wake, or at least, not as much as predicted.

Last week, I read an editorial that said, “Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden it is now. There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and most of all, there was less loading up with trash.”

And I thought: RIGHT ON.

And then I looked a little more closely, and realized the editorial was written in 1904.

Our problems are not new.

IV.

And yet, the claim of Christmas is that, even if the problems and shortcomings of the world have not particularly changed, neither has the solution.

The love and presence of God are here for us to claim.

The deep transformation that God offers us, and that God offers the world in Jesus are still before us.

In the eyes of Scripture, Christmas was not simply an event that happened; it was a force that was permanently unleashed.

At the other end of the story, this becomes clear.

After Good Friday and Easter, Luke describes the day of Pentecost, saying: “They were all together, when suddenly there came a sound from heaven like the violent blast of wind, which filled the whole house where they were seated. They saw tongues like flames distributing themselves, one resting on the head of each, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”(Acts 2:1-4).

The story that Luke begins with the sudden pop of the star, appearing in the fields over Bethlehem, announcing the birth of the savior, he continues with sudden wind of the Spirit filling the lungs of God’s people to proclaim and enact the message.

We all know that, at Christmas, Heaven and nature sing; Scripture wants us to understand that they’ve never stopped singing, that at Christmas, something decisive, something permanent came into the world, and it has never left.

A force was permanently unleashed, and that force has never subsided, and while its work is far from finished, its power is beyond anything that human ingenuity could ever control, much less stop in its tracks.

And thank God for that.

V. 

The question for us tonight is, can you and I feel that force?

Veterans of the story that we are, can you and I kneel before the manger…not because we have all the answers…and certainly not because we’re perfect—but precisely because we don’t have all the answers and are still working on being the people we hope to become?

Doesn’t God’s dream for us, and for the world, come alive somehow at Christmas, in ways that we can still feel, that still pull at us—in ways that still push us?

I think it does.

Somehow, in these days, it seems easier to feel how God keeps calling out to us—because the power of the Christmas story still has some sort of claim, some kind of toe-hold on our inmost selves.

So much in our world speaks to our heads, but in our hearts, few of us who gather on a night like this can fully deny that claim.

Because tonight, somehow, we still feel that force—that force, pulsing through this old story, and that force, deeply alive in our hope for a world renewed, redeemed and at finally peace with itself.

Tonight we embody the community of those who live in the light of that story, as surely as the magi lived their lives in the light of that Bethlehem star.

Deep transformation is still possible. For us, for the world—indeed, for every dark corner of the globe and the even darker corners of the human heart, deep transformation and the healing love of God are still possible.

The star still shines, and the wind still blows.

Isaiah puts it this way:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

And at Christmas, through the grace of God, somehow we know in our bones that it is so.

May we carry the knowledge with us tonight, and all our days.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Sermon: Breathing Room (Isaiah 11:1-10)

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For me, personally, over the last few days, it has been so very strange and so particularly unsettling to see t.v. coverage of the streets of New York filled with people, weary and hurt and baffled…and marching peacefully through places that I know well.

They have been marching in places like Times Square and Grand Central Station, and even the 79th entrance ramp to the West Side Highway.

That last one is hardly a cherished landmark, but, as it happens, it is a block away from a school where I used to work, and so it was strange to see cameras and crowds and news happening in a place that feels so powerfully familiar.

Last week in this time, I preached about weariness, and about how strange and yet fitting it is that the weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, might begin on that note.

Weariness comes from many different directions these days, and we acknowledged that. We did not acknowledge Michael Brown or Ferguson, by name last week, but I also had them in mind, and maybe you did, too.

And now this week, we have another situation, surrounding the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island—a situation that voices as different as Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly have both said they find troubling.

So, seeing those pictures on t.v. was a reminder to me about how we are all caught up in these questions, and how we are all surrounded by the challenge of how to respond.

If we are inclined to think that what’s happening on the ground elsewhere need not be on our radar, well, it seems fair to say that the ground might just be shifting underneath our feet.

Of course, some of us here today can remember another December 7th …December 7, 1941…when it also must have seemed as if the ground was shifting underneath everyone’s feet, and the problems surrounding people in other places suddenly became not so nearly far away.

It is heavy, indeed, to think about all that. Confronting it daily is, of course, much, much heavier.
“WE CAN’T BREATHE” said a headline in the Daily News. So many people feel as if they can’t.

And yet, as we return to the words of Isaiah this morning, it’s clear that Isaiah can. That Isaiah is not weary.

Isaiah is talking about new life this morning—about trees that were cut off at the root, leaving only the stump behind, suddenly growing new branches…suddenly showing signs of life—and it’s an image of old, abandoned promises being rekindled, re-inhabited.

And instead of looking around and despairing about everything that is not right, Isaiah talks about the remarkable one who is to come, in whom God’s people will find a way to make things right, at last.
His eyes are on the future, and what Isaiah sees is good.

The bad marriage of God’s people and the world, which seems to bring out the worst in everyone, will be transformed, and a second honeymoon will one day come.

Liz and I were once at a dinner party where another couple we didn’t know began squabbling right in front of everyone.

It was all very subtle at the beginning. One of them would tell a story or make a point, and the other would smile at the rest of us, and then politely correct some detail.

But as the evening wore on, the smiles were fewer, and the corrections grew more pointed in both directions, and I began to wonder what would happen the minute they got in the car to go home.

We never did see that couple again, and it seems like mere curiosity on my part to ask the host from that evening about what has become of that unhappy couple in the years since then.

But I’ve always hoped they were able to find a way forward from where they were. Some way to be transformed together. To fall back in love.

Isaiah might jump in here and remind us that, in fact, the road forward is a winding road, a road that loops backward into the past before it turns and heads over the horizon into the future.

For Isaiah, transformation, becoming something new, is also a process of un-becoming, a kind of dismantling of the person we have learned to be in order that we might be free to become a new person.

Many years later, the Apostle Paul would say, “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And Isaiah imagines a world transformed by the Holy One, and gives his vision of the peaceable kingdom that will unfold once the Holy One, God’s messiah, at last arrives.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,” he says, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isaiah 11:6-8).

It is a stunning vision, that peaceable kingdom. A vision of new creatures, indeed.

But let’s be real.

If the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling shall learn, one day, to lie down together, it is not because they simply decide that, going forward, they are going to love one another.

The peaceable kingdom will only come as the old nature gets patiently dismantled, and the old antagonisms of the way things are enter a process of un-becoming, a journey backward, and then forward, that will slowly lead beyond the horizon to a new, transformed Creation.

Why does Christmas have the power over us that it does?

Maybe it’s because it has power like no other time of year quite does – a power to take us back, to remind us of the people we once were – to put us back in touch with the hopes we once held, and the visions that moved us.

Whatever we have become in the years since, whatever life with all its challenges and indignities has done to us, at Christmas we find a way back—a way back to a moment when our joys were more pure, and our loyalties less divided.

If we want, we can let this be a short, nostalgic little breather before we get back to the grind.
But Isaiah seems to point to another possibility.

Isaiah seems to suggest that in these days, as we reconnect with old promises, and old dreams, we might find the energy to un-become some of what we’ve let ourselves turn into—that we might dismantle some of what we have constructed, and if we have somehow become a wolf, or a leopard, or a lion, we might yet be part of a new Creation, a part of the peaceable kingdom that is coming, and which will be running along different lines.

But in a very real way, the peaceable kingdom depends on how we learn to un-become the people our petty shortcomings and our grievous sins have turned us into.

And the peaceable kingdom depends on how we dismantle the world that our brokenness has taught us to build.

More and more these days, I’m feeling that call to dismantle what is broken. What’s broken in the world and what is broken in me.

More and more, I find myself honor-bound, conscience-stricken, and just plain ready to try to see those things clearly.

I love Christmas. But maybe it’s time we gave up our hope of a future without coming to terms of what it is in us and in our world that got us to this place where we are.

Because only as we take account of such things that we can expect to see the road turn toward a place of wholeness, a place of peace and justice and hope, a place where the shalom of God will permanently dwell.

These are days when, in so many different ways, it seems as if the ground is shifting beneath our feet—days when so many of God’s children choke to say that they can’t breathe.

Perhaps Christmas seems like a temporary antidote to all that unpleasantness.

But this morning, Isaiah, at least as the Church has read him, says that Christmas is not just a temporary antidote, but a permanent solution.

It’s not a breather. It’s a call to action. And especially, it is a call to action for those of us who can breathe in these days to come to the aid of those who cannot.

Isaiah promises that:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

And at Christmas, the part that jumps out at us is the part about the child.

That child leads us to un-becoming, so that we might learn to conduct ourselves aright.

That child leads us into the patient dismantling of all that has lead us astray.

That child comes to guide us, so that in Him, we might finally become the people of his way.

That child comes to begin a whole new era, when the old divisions will be no more, and peace with justice will reign and you and I will be transformed with all Creation.

That child comes so that we all might breathe again.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and a little child shall lead them.”

Lord, may it be so. May it be soon. May there be a place for me there…and one for you…and one for each and every one.