Preached by Pastor Tracey Leslie, December 24, 2014
We Christians have lots of arguments about worship. It’s true, you know. We disagree about the kind of songs that should be sung and the kinds of instruments that should accompany them. We disagree about how long the worship service should last and whether it should be mostly preaching or whether other parts of the service have value, too. We disagree about how long the preacher should preach and whether they should use notes or preach extemporaneously (that is, without notes). We disagree about whether the service should be casual or reverent; quiet or boisterous. And, of course, we work awfully hard to get you all here… thanks for coming, by the way. Which might make us all begin to wonder, what is worship about anyway?
Well, as for Christian worship, the precedent or pattern was set on that night long ago by some rather unqualified attendees: shepherds. Now, they look very romantic in our manger scenes. But they were anything but.
When I was in seminary I worked at a facility for juvenile offenders. I know, it might sound funny coming from someone so tiny, but I never found the young men particularly intimidating. They’d had pretty rough lives and dysfunctional families. But I can tell you what I didn’t like about working there… the smell. For some reason, I suppose as part of their rehabilitation, it was left up to the young men to keep the premises clean. It was a dreadful plan. Not only was the house dirty and had its fair share of vermin; it smelled horrible. When I came home, I would hang my coat on a hook on the wall outside my apartment.
You should know, I only really see out of one eye and that one requires plenty of correction and already, my hearing isn’t keen… as evidenced by the number of times you hear me say, “What? What?” But God gifted me with one keen sense… my sense of smell and it was sorely offended at that juvenile facility.
And I can imagine it would have been every bit as offended had I been there with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus when those shepherds showed up. Shepherds in first century Palestine really didn’t have a lot going for them. They were blue collar workers who smelled all the time. They weren’t known for their social graces… after all, the majority of their time was spent with animals. And many of them were even known to be little shifty and sneaky. But with all those strikes against them, I’ll give them credit for this much: these ones sure knew how to worship. Luke tells us that their encounter with that tiny baby caused them to depart from that manger with an outpouring of praise. Words of worship on the lips of some pretty rugged, simple and kind of crude guys. But they just couldn’t help themselves. They were, apparently, overjoyed and after all, that was the point, wasn’t it? That’s what the angel said to them, “I bring you good news of great joy.” I can’t imagine there was a whole lot of joy in their line of work. Stuck out in the elements day and night; animals (and some pretty dumb ones at that) your most frequent companions; smelly work; lonely work; physically demanding work. You wouldn’t catch me signing up. And so, as if the angel hadn’t been shocking enough, I imagine the promise of such an incredible joy was quite the hook for those guys. They beat fast tracks into town to check out this baby in a crude feeding trough that dangled the promise of great joy. And, upon laying eyes on him, they knew he was something special. So impressed were they to be in the presence of this little baby that, when they left that place, they were worshipping like crazy…. Glorifying God and praising him. As a matter of fact, they follow the lead of the angelic host precisely. Just like the angels, they praise and they glorify God.
When those shepherds leave that manger, they’ve experienced what the angel promised – great joy. Now, my guess is, they didn’t quit their day job… or, in this case, I guess it was their night job, too. It wasn’t as if now, suddenly, that baby had scrubbed them clean, provided them with a new, fancy wardrobe, liberated them from the cold, damp evening air, or catapulted them to the top of the social ladder. It wasn’t as if the mega jackpot winning ticket was tucked inside those swaddling clothes. They returned, Luke tells us, which means they must have just gone back to their flocks; back to the same old, same old… except for the fact that, clearly, things weren’t the same. Something was dramatically different now and it was different all because of this tiny baby tucked to bed in a feeding trough... a baby who would save them. That title, Savior, Soter, was used by Roman Emperors who liked to fancy themselves as the bringers of peace on earth… except it was peace at the end of a sword and really more of a reign of terror than of mercy; more bad news than good news and not a whole lotta joy. But this was different and the shepherds knew that. They knew that this Savior, a baby born in a stable and tucked into a manger by parents who were little more than peasants… Well, that wasn’t your typical kind of Savior. After all, who among the powerful and elite would have allowed the likes of them to visit? No, this would be a Savior for the little guy… and gal. A baby that embodied the manifestation of God’s glory and power; and, to know that God loved them and cared for them enough to send this Savior for them… Well, it was as if their gratitude knew no bounds. They couldn’t contain the joy they felt; they just had to praise God for what he’d done for them… for them.
And that’s what worship really amounts to. It’s not about a particular style or format. It’s about our expression of joy because we have a God who cared enough about us to send us a Savior. And, not one of glass or ceramic delicately placed atop our mantles. No; one who dwelt among people the likes of us – ordinary, hardworking, and sometimes a little rough around the edges; one whose crib was a crude feeding trough. One who would do whatever it took to save us… even if that meant dying for us. Whatever it took to deliver us, that little baby would do and good news like that… well, who could help but be joyful and give thanks to God? Who could help but praise God and sing it out: “Glory, glory to God in the highest?”
There is an old, Christmas legend that tells of how God called the angels of heaven together one day for a special choir rehearsal. He told them that he had a special song that he wanted them to learn… a song that they would sing at a very significant occasion. The angels went to work on it. They rehearsed long and hard… with great focus and intensity. In fact, some of the angels grumbled a bit… but God insisted on a very high standard for his choir.
As time passed, the choir improved in tone, in rhythm, and in quality. Finally God announced that they were ready… but then, he shocked them a bit. He told them that they would sing the song only once… and only on one night. There would be just one performance of this great song they had worked on so diligently. Again, some of the angels grumbled. The song was so extraordinarily beautiful and they had it down pat now… surely, they could sing it many, many times. God only smiled and told them that when the time came, they would understand.
Then one night, God called them together. He gathered them above a field just outside of Bethlehem. “It’s time,” God said to them… and the angels sang their song. My, did they sing it! “Glory to God in the highest… and on earth peace and good will toward all…” And as the angels sang, they knew there would never be another night like this one, and that there would never be another birth like this one.
When the angels returned to heaven, God reminded them that they would not formally sing that song again as an angelic choir, but if they wanted to, they could hum the tune occasionally. One angel was bold enough to step forward and ask God why. Why could they not sing that majestic anthem again? They did it so well. It felt so good. Why couldn’t they sing that great song anymore? “Because,” God explained, “my Son has been born… and now earth must do the singing!”
a faithful love
A Faithful Love
Scriptures: Hosea 11:1-4 and Galatians 4:1-7
preached by Tracey Leslie on Dec. 14, 2014
There is a story of a missionary family many years ago; living in a remote village in a country rife with political instability. One afternoon, a group of soldiers arrived at their home and informed them they had 48 hours to depart the country. Should they decide to remain beyond that time, their safety would be dubious. They were informed they could take with them 200 pounds of belongings. Anything in excess of that weight must be left behind.
Having young children, the missionary couple heeded their warning. They quickly, frantically, began to pick through their personal belongings and furniture, placing each item on a scale to determine its weight. It was a grueling process. There were professional items and resources necessary for their ministry wherever they might serve; they did not want to leave those behind. There were a few personal items they’d brought with them from the states that were sentimental and irreplaceable; they did not want to leave those behind. Likewise, there were gifts they’d received over the years from villagers who’d come to Christ and formed strong bonds with them; they did not want to leave those precious expressions of their gratitude behind. There were items related to their ministry that they considered holy; they did not want to leave those behind. And there were items, typical things that parents keep, to commemorate their children’s infancy and childhood. Laying the items out in piles on the floor, they moved things from stack to stack as they struggled to decide what to take with them and what to leave behind. They worked nearly non-stop through the 48 hours, sifting through their personal items while also preparing themselves and their children for this sudden and, potentially dangerous, departure.
After 48 hours the soldiers returned. They inquired, had the couple weighed their belongings carefully? They confirmed that they had. Then the soldier in command asked, “What about the children? Did you remember to weigh the children?”
The couple was stunned. They’d not considered that in that country’s culture, children were like property and, no, the missionary couple had not weighed their children. And in that moment, the painstaking work they’d done over the past two days was meaningless. Not a single belonging held any value for them now. They would leave it all behind gladly. All that mattered were the lives of their children.
If you are a parent, you know, there is nothing you wouldn’t do for your children. There are no words to describe or do justice to the love a parent has for their child. As most of you know, Britt and I do not have children. But, through my years of ministry, I have seen parents do heroic and dubious things, all in an effort to protect their children.
I knew a mother who, over a period of years grew increasingly distraught over her daughter’s behavior. Initially, it was disrespectful mouthing off at home and disengagement in school (nothing too unusual about that). But, it grew to become physical altercations between her and her sisters. She began failing in school. She ran away from home for periods of time to bunk with older friends engaged in all sorts of nefarious activities. Her behaviors became increasingly risky and harmful to herself and others. When she was 17, I tried to encourage mom to admit her to a residential rehabilitation program. Time was running out and she would soon be a legal adult. But, so fearful was mom of her daughter’s rejection, she simply could not do it.
Children tear at our hearts when they reject our love, our nurture and our values.
The book of Hosea is found in our scriptures as the first of 12 short prophetic books. Sometimes we think of prophecy as “fortune-telling”; but that’s not really an accurate understanding. The prophets were called by God to deliver his message to his people. Those messages were, most typically, an announcement that God was displeased with them because they had rejected him. And, they had rejected him in two ways. First, they had rejected his love for them by worshipping other gods, rather than placing their full trust in him. Second, they’d rejected his love for them by disregarding his values; his commands to be just and merciful with one another and to protect those most vulnerable, like widows, orphans and foreigners.
And, at the root of it all, was a breakdown of relationship. God loved them and wanted to care for them; but they rejected the relationship. And to make clear that this is about relationship – and not just a bunch of rules and regulations – God, speaking through the prophet Hosea, uses two relational metaphors to communicate his love. The first, which is most prevalent in Hosea but not one I’m terribly comfortable elaborating on during worship, is the metaphor of a husband with an unfaithful wife. As a sign/act, the prophet Hosea is told by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer. The message is that God’s people, Israel, had been “stepping out” on him with foreign gods and idols.
But, the second metaphor for God and Israel’s relationship that we find in the book of Hosea is this morning’s passage at the beginning of chapter 11. It is the parent/child metaphor. Here, God describes through the prophet in detail, all that he has done through the years to care for Israel by describing the behavior of a faithful, loving parent. Such a parent provides for the child’s needs, teaches the child, and shows them affection. That is what God has done for his people, but they – and we, also, at times – have been rebellious children; “running away from home,” so to speak and engaging in a lifestyle that is risky and harmful.
God makes clear that such behavior will have painful and horrible consequences. And yet, even as God announces his punishment, God cannot reject his children. God simply cannot cross us off his list because we are his children and, when a parent loves their child, no amount of bad behavior can ever destroy or corrupt that love. And so, God’s love for us is incorrigible and beyond our ability to fathom.
In this passage of scripture from Hosea, the images of our heavenly parent are passionate and affectionate: God takes us in his arms; lifts us like a parent lifts an infant to their cheeks to kiss them; God bends down toward us.
And never was that more fully expressed than in the coming of Jesus. In Jesus, God bent down from the heavens, so to speak, to be right here with us; to make his incorrigible love for us tangible and real in a way that we could comprehend.
It is as the writer of Galatians tells us:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman… so that we might receive adoption as children.
It is as John proclaimed in his gospel introduction – in his own distinctive account of the nativity:
God’s Word became flesh and lived among us...
[and] to all who received him, who trusted in him, he gave power to become children of God.
John further says that, through Jesus, “We have all received grace upon grace.”
You know, years ago I was naïve enough to assume that people in church understood how much God loved them. After all, we talk about it every week, more or less. But what I’ve learned through the years is that, while people may believe that “God so loved the world,” it is sometimes hard for them to trust in God’s love for them, specifically. God doesn’t just love the world in some cosmic, abstract sense; God loves you.
My husband and I have done this thing with our dogs, a little silly; but, we will pet one of them and cuddle them and say, “Oh, you’re my favorite dog.” And, of course, five minutes later, we can be petting the other dog and say to them, “you’re my favorite dog.” Obviously, the dogs don’t have a command of English like we do so they perceive no inconsistency in what we say. All that they know is that, when we use that word “favorite,” we are always doing something nice to them – petting them, cuddling with them. They live in the moment and happily receive the “favor” we show them.
If you were in church last Sunday, you might remember me saying that, just as the virgin Mary was “favored” by God, so too, are we favored by God. In the language of our New Testament, that is the same word we translate as “grace.” And that grace of God finds its fullest expression in Jesus, the Word become flesh, the one who offers us “grace upon grace.” We are each one of us, God’s beloved and favored children.
And, just like ancient Israel, God wants us to accept his love by placing our trust in him and by making God’s values our values. That is what our Advent theme, “A Different Kind of Christmas,” is really all about. We’re challenging you to scale back on your Christmas spending for family and friends and match that spending with giving to those in need... and, truth be told, it might wind up costing you a little more in the long run. And it will likely be an impossible challenge for you to accept unless you place your trust fully in God and make God’s values your values. You see, if we trust fully in God, we won’t be anxious or worried about our own security. We’ll trust and believe that, even if our giving to those in need is a stretch, God will be faithful in his love for us and his care for us. And, if we make God’s values our values, we will be just as concerned about that child in need that we don’t even know as we are about our own children… because we will understand that we are all God’s beloved and favored children.
Now, sometimes we wonder how much people we help deserve it. We have concerns that people might be “playing the system.” And, it certainly is wise to funnel our giving through reputable and experienced ministries like LUM or our United Methodist Children’s Home or the Salvation Army. And yet, at the end of the day, all of us – each and every one of us – are in need of God’s grace; and each and every one of us is God’s favored child.
Well-known southern preacher and story-teller Fred Craddock tells of the first church he served as a student pastor. In his book Craddock Stories, he writes:
They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and had about $100 in it.
They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money
according to the conditions. So I said, “What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money
to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness,
or poor management.” I said, “Well, what else is there?”
As far as I know, they still have that money.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. – John 1:14, 16
Mystery, Mess and Miracles
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
Preached by Tracey Leslie at Trinity United Methodist on Dec. 7, 2014
At a Christmas Eve service a few years ago, a pastor made an announcement just before the worship began. He had an elderly couple at the back of the sanctuary stand as he announced that today was their 60th wedding anniversary. He praised their commitment to one another and led the congregation in applauding them. Now let me say that 60 years of marriage is a wonderful thing to celebrate. But I was uncomfortable with the way in which we celebrated. And here is why…
One year just a few weeks before Christmas, I’d visited with a woman who was terminally ill. During our visit, she spoke of her family. The one she spoke of most was her daughter, Liz. Several years prior, Liz had moved to the other side of the country due to her husband’s employment. The children were young and adapted quickly making new friends at school. But Liz was an introvert and it was a difficult adjustment for her. Just a couple of years later, Liz’ husband filed for divorce. She missed the support of her family hundreds of miles away. Split custody meant that the children would spend Christmas Eve with their dad and Christmas Day with mom. Leading up to Christmas, as Liz and her mom spoke on the phone it was obvious how lonely and discouraged she felt. So here was her mother’s very sincere advice and urgent plea: don’t spend Christmas Eve alone; go to church. She pleaded with Liz. She knew she didn’t feel like going to church or anywhere that night. But, her mom assured her, going to church would help. She would feel better, feel comforted, if she took the step.
And so, that Christmas Eve when the pastor lauded and the congregation applauded that sixty-year wedding anniversary, Liz came to my mind. I looked around the sanctuary. There were lots of people I didn’t know. What if one of them was in the same boat as Liz had been? What if someone had come to church that evening grieving a broken marriage? What if, just like Liz, that’d been urged to go to church and told it would make them feel better?
Mike Slaughter in his book A Different Kind of Christmas points out that we all want our Christmas to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. We run ourselves ragged to get everything just right: the gifts, the decorations, the food. We strive to create one perfect day in an otherwise imperfect year. But, for many, that perfect picture isn’t reality. Even here in our small congregation, I would venture to guess that we could fill our service time sharing the burdens that people carry this season: loneliness from a loved one lost, fear over financial instability, regret over relationships that have fallen apart, anxiety that a family member being treated for addiction or mental illness might not hold up under the stress of this season; memories that haunt us and fears that alarm us gather round like Scrooge’s ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. We want everything to be perfect; and yet… it is not.
If you were in church last Sunday, you remember me saying that the very first Christmas wasn’t perfect either. It was somewhat of a mess. The stable, the animals and the shepherds are all so beautiful and clean on the cover of our Christmas cards. But, picture perfect wasn’t their reality either.
Already exhausted from their long journey, Mary’s “delivery room” wasn’t exactly what one would hope for… even in the first century. Surrounded by smelly, dirty animals; they didn’t even have a crib for the baby Jesus. So they had to lay him in one of the animal’s feeding troughs.
Likewise, this morning’s story of the angel’s announcement to Mary has been portrayed by many an artist over the centuries as something so beautiful and serene. After all, artists love angels. I have one of these Willow Tree angels. It’s just so cute. But you know, I don’t think the angels of our scriptures were quite so cute and sweet. And I’ll tell you why; because, almost invariably, their introductory words are “Do not be afraid.” Time, distance and the familiarity of this story have caused us to romanticize it just as we romanticize giving birth in a barn. When we think of this story we might be tempted to think how nice it would be to have an angel visit us. And, what an honor Mary was given. But, we may not stop to think about her vulnerability and what it really meant for Mary to say “yes” to God’s coming into her womb and her life. Mary, though hardly mature and worldly wise was no dummy either. She undoubtedly understood that her saying “yes” placed her at great jeopardy.
You see, in Mary’s day, betrothal was a done deal. When you were engaged, you were as good as married. Marriages were pre-arranged by the fathers. That meant that Mary didn’t know Joseph. In a village the size of Nazareth, they probably knew of one another; but they didn’t know one another personally; so Mary could not have begun to guess how Joseph would respond to this shocking and confusing news. Now, engagements lasted for about a year and if the woman was found to be with another man during the course of this time, she was considered to be an adulterer and deserving of the punishment for adultery – which was, death by stoning. And yet, in response to the angel’s announcement, Mary accepts, even embraces, God’s call upon her life. Mary says “yes” to God’s advent, his coming within her and through her. Mary knows this is a miracle; but it is a messy miracle and somewhat of a mystery. “The Most High will overshadow you”; I mean, what kind of explanation was that for conceiving a baby? The whole thing is a long way from picture perfect.
Yet, there is something of far greater value than perfection. Let me say that again for all us over achievers: there is something of far greater value than perfection. And that something is grace; specifically, God’s grace (which covers a multitude of our imperfections). Unlike perfection which we strive to attain, grace is a gift. The angel’s message to Mary is an assurance that she has received grace or favor from God. Although we can’t tell in English, the word used when the angel greets Mary as “favored one” and informs her that she has “found favor with God.” Well the word used there for “favor” is usually translated in our scriptures as “grace:” God’s inexplicable desire to pour out his mercy and kindness on us. When the angel delivers this message to Mary she seems to comprehend that what she is being asked to do, what she will be used to do, will reveal an outpouring of God’s grace. She has been favored; graced by God. And so she says, “Let it be; let it be with me according to your word.”
Friends, you have heard me say before that, although we like to think of ourselves as generous givers; our very identity as Christians depends completely on our ability to receive, to receive the grace of God. In order to give to others, we must first be willing to receive. We have nothing to offer up to others until we receive and accept the manifestation of God’s grace in our lives; although it might not be what we expect and it doesn’t always come in the ways we expect it to come. Grace isn’t a ticket that we redeem for a lifetime benefit of being healthy, wealthy and wise. Grace isn’t a power we can harness to take over the world. Grace is what God does for us, to us and through us. It is mysterious and miraculous, but it doesn’t come wrapped up in a neat and tidy bow. Sometimes it looks pretty messy from the world’s perspective. Imagine the Savior of the world showing up as a baby: the baby of a poor peasant couple; a baby raised in a tiny agricultural village; a baby born to a virgin out of wedlock.
As you know, we are in the season of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming,” but it is not exclusive to God’s coming as a baby long ago in Bethlehem; for God continues to come to us and through us if only we will say “let it be with me according to your word.” When we are willing to say “let it be” God can do amazing things with our lives; and not just the successful, impressive, “got it all together” pieces of our lives. God can take our failures, our sorrows, our fears, even our screw-ups and transform them into a manifestation of his grace. Christmas, my friends, is God’s reminder that even in the midst of the messiness of our lives, God shows up. In the midst of grief or death, sickness or sorrow, broken and strained relationships; no matter what we are struggling with, God is with us just as he was with Mary. You are God’s favored one; the Lord is with you… and you, and you… and me. Nothing in this world can disrupt the nearness of God’s presence or thwart the power of God’s grace. It miraculously brings peace where there is conflict; purpose that dispels confusion; joy that is unending; hope that overcomes despair; and a sense of wholeness, wellness, that reveals God’s salvation.
Friends, you may feel weary this Christmas, or discouraged, or question that God has a call for you; but he does. Not because you’re perfect; not because you’ve got it all together; not because you’re brimming over with all kinds of abilities and resources. But simply because God is with you and his grace is being poured out over your life. You are one of his favored ones. And so, God wants to make his advent, his coming, known to others through you. And, all that God needs from you is your willingness to say, “Let it be... Let it be, God according to your Word, to your purpose, to your desires. Let it be not about me, but about you; because it is your birthday after all.”
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