Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we end another year this week and a decade comes to an end. All around there are hopes for a new beginning, a fresh start. Remind us today that in the coming of Christ all things are being made new. We no longer need to measure against ourselves or any other. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Nathan Finn captured the sense we get from observing the 12 Days of Christmas when he posted on Facebook,
Christmastide began on December 25 and will last through Epiphany on January 6. I prefer the way the church historically extended the ‘Christmas Season’ forward into January rather than the way the world extends the ‘holiday [shopping] season’ backward into November.
Here is a good reason we will enjoy the greenery for yet another week.
These 12 Days of Christmas are not the same as the Twelve Days in the song that include drummers drumming, maids a-milking and a partridge in a pear tree. These twelve days give us pause to consider the impact of the Incarnation, God, as Eugene Peterson puts it, moved into the neighborhood. The twelve days of Christmas are not about wooing your loved one with odd gifts. It is about the One whose love is the greatest of gifts.
Speaking of Christmas gifts, for the past 25 Christmases Patty, and her elf, have crafted an angel ornament to give each family the Sunday before Christmas. This year she took her idea from something she saw and planned to put her own unique touch on it for our ornament this year. Her elf cut out the wood that would be the foundation for the piece. She assembled all the materials on our dining room table.
Patty’s angel ornaments go through several steps or stages. She reached the last two steps before we would attach the eye hook for the hangers. The angel would be green, the color for transplant recipients and donors. She wanted the angel to mark a special event as she has with nearly every angel she has crafted. It just did not look like she planned. We thought we could take a step back and try again. But, it just did not work. There was not enough time for an alternative. No new beginning, no re-creation. Judging against her past successes, this was more than disappointing. What began with such great promise and prospect turned into kindling for a fire.
Our last conversation before throwing in the towel concerned the need to lessen the anxiety to perform. Maybe this will result in something new, something different. Who knows?
If these twelve days are not about the gifts given that include golden rings and french hens, is there a song that we might learn that helps us grasp that God is creating something new? Is there a song that strips us of the need to always compare with others or ourselves in order to feel good about life? Is there a song that sets a course with less anxiety and more hope? Every era has their songs that gin up inspiration for us to press on. The website Goalcast lists the top 30 inspirational songs so that you don’t stop believin’ you can fly. Just imagine somewhere over the rainbow. Dream on with the eye of a tiger. You’re livin’ on a prayer knowing all you needs is love. All of these songs, while catchy and good, actually place a greater burden on us. Waking to these lyrics, or others like them, to get us motivated each day emphasizes that it is all up to us, all of it.
And what people have found and continue to find is that the task is too big for us. We resort to thinking that with just a little luck we can make this whole thing work out.
Are there other lyrics we could learn?
Some of us learned at least a few hymns that helped us recall the themes of God’s love. From Jesus Loves the Little Children to Redeemed How I Love to Proclaim It, Church history is full of songs, chants and hymns that aid in the life of repentance lived by those who trust Jesus is Lord. Keep in mind that no one carried around their own copy of the Hebrew Scriptures much less a copy of any of what we refer to as the books of the New Testament. It would take more than 1400 years before a printing machine made multiple copies a possibility. These songs, these hymns, were the mnemonic means to teach and help Christians remember the beauty of God’s love for all in Christ.
Early Christians learned the hymn that Carol read just a moment ago. That’s right, just as Paul used a hymn in Philippians 2 to teach the Christians at Philippi the lengths to which God went to show us his love, so John does with the hymn that begins his gospel story. Paul reminds the Christians at Philippi that Jesus came and took the form of a human suffering death on a cross. Here John’s hymn describes Jesus’ coming, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as the light in the darkness. Both Paul and John aim to point out the means of grace revealed in God coming to us in Jesus, the Christ.
The lyrics of the hymn in John 1 would call to mind the things they heard about the One in whom they trusted. Christians would sing the songs of revolution, of reconciliation, of re-creation. It is not an overstatement to say that the songs of Zechariah, of Mary and here of the Church, inspired allegiance to Jesus by those who had once pledged allegiance to another – whether it was Caesar or themselves.
Have we lost the sense that the message of Christmas is scandalous? Is the only scandal we face at Christmas is whether or not to admit we did not receive that for which we hoped would come under our trees?
It was God, not the people, who saw their situation as scandalous. People did not think they were walking in darkness. Nor do people today. After all we have moved from oil lamps to incandescent to LED lighting. Look what we can do. We have gone from walking to harnessing the use of animals to Model T’s and A’s to the Tesla. Our history is one of progress not darkness. However, 2019 will go down as the year marked by the most mass murders in a single year. Despite all the light we produce, our collective anxiety levels have never been higher. In fact, for the past three years the average lifespan of people living in the U.S. has been in decline. We carry on as if the darkness were light. Rather than leave humanity to carry on in darkness, the Word, Jesus, came into the world bringing the light of life.
It is not an insult to human intelligence to suggest we are walking in darkness. It is instead a revolutionary, disruptive idea to contend that we are not as bright as we contend. We hide our darkness behind solid economic numbers, telling ourselves life has never been better. That is the message we resort to in order to deflect from other leading indicators that we are not as happy or peaceful as we let on. Could it be our pursuit of the god of economic security darkens the heart and the soul? It was Jesus who said a person could not serve God and money.
There were no good economic numbers in John’s day. Food insecurity and political uncertainty dominated just as it does in many places around the world today. It is surprising that many live in our Country under similar conditions.
John’s hymn points to a light that all people need.
The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
Seeing the world as it is gave us a man sent from God whose name was John. This messenger countered the news carried on by Caesar and modified by the religious leaders of the day. John pointed to something different on the way. The One who would come would not simply repackage old ideas, the One whose coming he announced offered hope to all, not just a few.
The hymn Christians learned points up a new world coming. The One through whom all things came into being would be the One who became the gift to be received. It is here that we pick up on a controversial realization. For those living in darkness it is better to receive. That anyone need to receive anything is humbling. We resist the help. We would prefer to be the giver. Why? Because giving ensures us a sense that we have something to offer, that we are resourceful, that we are those on whom others depend. Do you see the weight of that position?
What happens when you no longer have anything to offer? When your circumstances in life change? What will you do when you become dependent on others? If we have put all our confidence in ourselves, if we must be the ones who do the giving, life takes on an unbearable reality when we no longer occupy the role of giver. Unless of course, there is a song that reminds us that receiving the gift is our hope. Then it does not matter our age or circumstance. We find our hope in the lyrics of the hymn,
But to all who have received him, who trusted in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
These old hymns never get old. In them we recover the root of grace. We are no longer trapped by a law, any law, that places the burden of proof on us for our worthiness. Instead, we repent of those ideas that our worthiness is meted out by our performance. We need not be anxious when our most recent performance is not as good as our past successes. We need not be troubled when others around us appear to be moving forward at a more rapid pace that us. We need not fear being left behind when our portfolio is not as strong as we hoped or as others announce. No, the law, the one that is too difficult to bear is exceeded by the grace and truth that come through Jesus Christ.
John’s hymn prods us to know the realities of this grace as God reveals Godself in Jesus. When we want to know what the Giver is like, we look at Jesus. In Jesus we see God’s glory, we encounter his fulness, we receive grace upon grace.
The hymn ends with the promise that we need not fumble in the dark wondering what life looks like having received the gift of God’s grace, we look to Jesus and see with clarity God’s gift for all.
We need no other song than Jesus.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.