Monday, December 11, 2017

"All I Want for Christmas: The Gift of a New Understanding" - Sermon, December 10, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“All I Want for Christmas: The Gift of a New Understanding”
Pastor Andrew Davis
December 10, 2017
Luke 1: 39-56

            If it sounds like a broken record of what a week it’s been these days, that’s because it seems like each week has something exciting that’s taken place.  This last week, we had a couple great sections of Advent small group on Monday and Wednesday, then on Tuesday and Thursday, had the joy of welcoming many of our children here for Christmas pageant rehearsals, which will take place this next week as well on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for next Sunday’s pageant.  I am always amazed at the level of energy kids bring, although I also tend to forget how much energy kids have.  Helps keep us on the young side too!! 
            As I think about the kids and the adults here in the church, this is a wonderful opportunity that we have before us in seeing more kids in our midst and an opportunity to be mentors and a positive role model.  Yeah, kids run around, make noise, and do all sorts of things that might raise our blood pressure a point or two, except kids are kids.  There’s actually a church in SoCal, Hope UMC in Torrance whose website is, and in all honesty, I would not have it any other way, even when it might unsettle a few of us at times.  Kids are curious, kids will act up here and there, and kids will be noisy and run around, even when it’s not always a good time.  And, we love them anyway, as it’s loving God and neighbor.  We have this wonderful opportunity to teach our children, teach them and learn together with them, this amazing story of God’s love and how we can all gain a sense of awe and reverence around us; and right now, we have the amazing opportunity to hear and share the story about the birth of Jesus and how this baby boy born in Bethlehem some 2017 years ago changed the world. 
         When we still had cassette tapes, there was one by the group Air Supply who have a song, “In the Eyes of a Child” that goes,
In the eyes of a child there is joy, there is laughter
There is hope, there is trust, a chance to shape the futureFor the lessons of life there is no better teacher
Than the look in the eyes of a child.[i] 

            I’m often finding that we need to look to the eyes of a child to receive the gift of a new understanding, as a new understanding is one of the many gifts of God’s grace that we can open at Christmas. 
            Whenever I read this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke, I would love to have been there to eavesdrop some on Elizabeth and Mary during their visit.  Mary and Elizabeth are cousins and when Mary goes to see Elizabeth, Elizabeth is six months pregnant with Jesus’s cousin, John who we will know later on as John the Baptist.   Now the fact that Elizabeth is pregnant is a miracle in itself, as Elizabeth had been barren, or previously unable to bear children and is a lot older in age.  Meanwhile, her husband, Zechariah, a priest, and older gentleman himself, was literally rendered speechless, as the angel had Zechariah’s mouth bound for not believing in the miracle that Elizabeth would bear a son.  If you get a chance between worship and the Courthouse Sing today, I invite you to read what comes before this morning’s lesson, as it definitely has some good stuff in it (and if you want a Bible for the home, see me)!  Elizabeth, and even her infant in the womb, knows there is something special happening when Mary comes to their house, as the baby leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, which had to be a little more intense than a kick, although Elizabeth radiated pure joy when she saw Mary enter. 
            Like we heard in Joseph’s account last week from the Gospel of Matthew and how he was startled, it had to be quite startling to a young person like Mary to find out she was pregnant, having not had any relations with anyone.  Just as the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to tell him not to be afraid, Gabriel tells Mary the same thing six months later, that this baby she is in the early stages of pregnancy with will be no ordinary baby, but instead a baby who will be the son of God, great, and Holy.  Mary is left in awe, then when she learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, she goes quickly to see Elizabeth, not an easy journey in itself.  In his 2011 Advent study, The Journey, Rev. Adam Hamilton explains that
Mary was seeking out an older woman, a maternal figure who was not her mother.  Elizabeth seems indeed to be the perfect person for Mary to visit.  She was married to an older priest named Zecheriah and together, they were the New Tesament’s Abraham and Sarah.[ii]

            Elizabeth was a sustaining, positive role model for Mary and both women could give each other a new understanding.  For Mary, Elizabeth was “someone who could help [Mary] gain perspective on what she was facing; someone who would listen to and believe in her; someone who would encourage her.”[iii]  Ultimately, Mary will come to understand that “she was chosen by God to bear the Messiah.”[iv]
            What about us?  How is a new understanding a gift that we can receive at Christmas and pass onto others?  Well, like we saw in verse 49 where Mary exclaims, “the Mighty One has done great things for me,” James Moore explains in All I Want for Christmas that “God, the Mighty One does great things for us by giving us a new understanding” to who God is, how we relate to each other, and how we can have “a new purpose for living.”[v]
            When we look through verses 46-56 in Luke 1, also known as the Magnificat, we see Mary singing a song of joy, a song in which we can receive a new understanding about who God is and how some of the social roles are reversed, in which God puts the poor, the lowly, and the outcast first and shows great mercy to each.  As we study the Gospels, we are given a picture of who Jesus will grow up to focus his ministry on, while showing us that God is a God of love mercy, and grace.  That’s the God I know and grew up knowing, and continue getting to know better.  More importantly, “Jesus came to show us that God is love.”
            Some of my most favorite stories growing up were by Richard Scarry, particularly the “Busytown” series, which are an educational series of picture books.  In his Busytown Christmas book, Richard Scarry tells the story of these twins, Abe and Babe who were always misbehaving, always fighting with each other, destroying things, provoking others around them, and generally up to no good and just not very nice.  Long story short, Christmas Day comes around and instead of shiny new sleds and toys under the tree, Abe and Babe have two large bags of coal waiting for them. 
           However, a bad snowstorm hit Busytown the night before and people needed to heat their homes after the power went out, leaving many of their neighbors in the cold and without heat, or coal for their stoves to cook Christmas dinner.  Abe and Babe had a bit of a revelation, in which they could turn things around and help their neighbors by having everyone bring their sleds over and giving them enough coal for their stoves to cook Christmas dinner.  Out of receiving the coal, then giving it to those who needed it the most, Abe and Babe received a new understanding that they could be nice to others and help others out and were changed from that day on.  Even though Richard Scarry’s books did not necessarily have a religious undertone to them, such a story is a lot like how we can share the love of God with others, as “Christmas gives us a new experience of God’s compassion and tenderness, out of which we can form a new relationship with God built not on fear, but love.”[vi]
            We can receive the gift of a new understanding by seeing others around us in a new light, or more as beloved children of God.  Although that’s also one of the more challenging gifts too.  Humanity is far from perfect, and I know I’m nowhere near there either.  That’s one of the things I am trying to focus on more, and Advent and Christmas is a good time to begin seeing others in a different light.  Remember the Home Alone movies with MacCauley Culken?  In the first Home Alone movie, Mac’s character, Kevin had a neighbor, “Old Man Marley” who was quite scary looking on the outside and someone who was the subject of many rumors, but after sitting with Marley at a choir concert and getting to know him and hear Marley’s story, Kevin  gained a new understanding of Marley and became friends with him.  Later in the movie, Marley came to Kevin’s aid when his house was broken into.  Same goes with the Pigeon Lady in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York City, as the pigeon lady, while homeless, was one of the gentlest, kindest people around despite her outward appearance and became friends with Kevin and come to his aid like Marley did in the first movie when Kevin learned to see her in a different light.  Then of course in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge gets to experience the gift of a new understanding and see everyone and everything around him in a new light.  As James Moore puts it,
The gift of Christmas involves a new respect, a new regard for other people.  Christmas shows us that people are more important than things; they are not pawns to be used, but persons to be loved.  Also, Christmas shows us that the best way to love God is to love God’s children.[vii]

            After all, we never know who we will see the face of God in.  And even in our children that we see more of in this church lately and will continue to provide a safe place for, I see the face of God in our children and can’t wait for them to teach us along the way.  Then again, there is a line in Isaiah that does say, “a child shall lead them.” We need our Elizabeth’s and we need our Mary’s. We need our older friends who can be mentors, while also having our younger friends and a willingness to understand them.  We need many people in our lives to help us see a new understanding of ourselves.
            Finally, when we gain a new understanding of God and a new understanding of others, we can receive a new purpose for living, something where I can find renewal each Advent and Christmas season.  When we see the picture of a loving God full of grace and mercy, who brings good news to the poor, the sick, the captive, and the weak, when we see everyone around us as a beloved child of God, we too can see a new purpose for living, for loving, and serving in our own lives.[viii] When Mary came to Elizabeth, she came not knowing what entirely she was doing.  Yet, Elizabeth’s wisdom, love, and guidance gave Mary a new picture of God, of others, and in turn, gave Mary a new purpose for living from the new understanding she received and who she will become.  And Mary gave the same gift to Elizabeth. 
           How might a new understanding of God and of others bring joy to your life as we go into this new week and continue our Advent journey towards Christmas?
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Let the Church Say AMEN!! 

[i] "Air Supply Eyes Of A Child - Google Search". 2017. Google.Com. Accessed December 6 2017.

[ii] Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 63. 
[iii] Hamilton, 67
[iv] Ibid. 
[v] James Moore, All I Want for Christmas: Opening the Gifts of God’s Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 38-39. 
[vi] Moore, 41. 
[vii] Ibid. 
[viii] Moore, 44.  

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"All I Want for Christmas: The Gift of Good News" - Sermon, December 3, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“All I Want for Christmas: The Gift of Good News”
December 3, 2017
Pastor Andrew Davis
Isaiah 52: 1-12
Matthew 1: 18-25

What do You want for Christmas?  Whenever I am asked, I admit that it’s a tough question for me to answer, although ask any of the kids out here and we could get quite a list going.  As I get older, I realize that my wants and desires for Christmas become simpler: peace in our world; living in a world where truth and justice prevail; clean water, food for the hungry, homes for the homeless, services for mental health.  Okay, maybe not as simple as first thought, then again we can always have a grown-up Christmas list.  On the other hand, our wants can also be on the silly side, such as “all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” or “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas…”
It seems appropriate to ask what do you want for Christmas, as we begin the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  Advent is typically a time of preparation, of longing, slowing down (yeah right), and centering our hearts as we wait for Christmas to arrive.  Except in reality, the Christmas season is one of the busiest times of the year with all the extra events around town (which are fun to be at, like Sparkle this past Friday), winter concerts, the Courthouse Sing next Sunday afternoon that our choir will be participating in, Christmas pageants, shopping, parties, lots of eating, and more shopping.  Before seminary and entering pastoral ministry, when I used to work for Raley’s and for many who work in retail or grocery, it often felt more like we were just ready for Christmas to be over with.  At the same time, Advent can be a time to rethink why we are so busy and why things are so hectic, as Advent can be a good way to add spiritual practices, while also thinking about the gifts God gives to us, not just at this time of year, but all year-round.  As we embark on this Advent and Christmas series, “All I Want for Christmas,” my hope is that we will think about how we open the gifts of God’s grace while opening ourselves to those same gifts.  In both our messages on Sundays and in the small group study on Monday mornings or Wednesday afternoons, we’ll be thinking about the gifts of good news, a new understanding, a strong foundation, a new style of living, and Christmas gifts we can pass on to others. 
Not to keep harping on it, but it feels like lately we live in a world of constant bad news and darkness, especially now since it starts getting dark around 3:30 when the sun goes behind Claremont Ridge or when we turn the 4 or 5 pm news on.  We could certainly use some good news, and that’s one of the gifts we can receive at Christmas, even if we may not readily see it in plain sight or right away.  In the book this series is based on, All I Want for Christmas, James Moore explains that
Christmas gives us the gift of good news of Jesus’ birth, the good news that God is with us.  This gift of good news truly is a gift that keeps on giving, because it inspires our faith, grounds our hope, and leads us to love.  Through the good news of Jesus, Christmas gives us the gifts of faith, hope, and love.”[i]

            In Matthew’s Gospel that we just read, Joseph, who will be Jesus’s earthly father is having a crisis of faith over some news.  While Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is often recited on Christmas Eve or other television specials and movies at this time of year, we get a little perspective of Joseph in Matthew’s account. Following a thorough genealogy of the line from which Jesus came from, we encounter Joseph learning that his fiancĂ©, Mary is pregnant through the work of the Holy Spirit, considering they quite aren’t married yet.  He’s afraid that if people around town see that she is pregnant, both of their lives would be in danger.  According to the law at the time of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, Ron Allen, Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis explains that
neither party in a coming marriage could have sexual relations with an outside person. Mary’s pregnancy catches Joseph by surprise. According to Deuteronomy 22:23-27, Mary could be tried publicly and then executed. By resolving to “dismiss her quietly,” Joseph seeks to avoid public humiliation while also fulfilling the law.[ii]

            It’s a tough situation that Joseph feels like he is in and he sure could use some good news at the moment, as he wants to follow the law and do God’s will.  And, upon hearing this passage for the first time, it could be somewhat discomforting in the same light for many of us, especially in light of the sexual harassment claims we keep hearing about in the news of late like a broken record. Or as I was reading on Twitter from someone who was haunted from past events, this passage brought back a lot of bad memories and am fully aware that this morning’s gospel can trigger some bad memories among any of us too.  In Joseph’s case, the angel shows up and brings a small dose of good news to Joseph in his moment of fear and questions about what is right, as his role as Jesus’ earthly father is all a part of the prophecy.  As we just read in verse 23, Emanuel, the same hymn which we will be singing at the very end of worship this whole month, means that God is with us, giving us hope, and being our power source, or as I like to say, our spiritual batteries.[iii]
            There are times where our spiritual and even our physical batteries feel like they’re running on low or empty, more so at this time of year with all the extra stuff happening around us, along with all that tasty rich food.  At the same time, when we see a lot of bad news, or make our focus primarily on the bad news, that too can drain our batteries a little bit.  I know it drains my batteries and saps my energy when it becomes my focus.  Back in January when we were experiencing some significant rain and wind storms, we lost power for a good portion of the day and I found my LED flashlight to come in handy.  Only thing is that I apparently used it a lot more than I thought, as when I went to use it to look under the house I live in to turn off the water that controls the hydrants in the backyard in October, I found that the batteries had died.  So, time to get new batteries just in case we get any major storms that may knock out power.  The same thing can happen to us when we are constantly go-go-go, or when we focus too much on the bad news around, or if we aren’t practicing good self-care.  Our bodies, minds, and souls can get a little or a lot out of whack. 
       When we intentionally take the time to quiet our hearts and prepare our minds during the season of Advent and Receive the gift of good news,
Christmas reconnects us to our power source.  As we look forward to the birth of Jesus, we feel God come close and recognize that nothing else can fulfill our longing for a better world.  The reminder of God’s presence ignites our faith and reinvigorates our life in Christ.[iv]

            Now this is the very aspect about Christmas that reinvigorates my soul and helps give me a significant recharge to my faith, as I try to quiet my heart, focus my mind on good news, add some extra devotions and time with God, as well as try not to over-indulge in all the tasty treats or eggnog.  Try being the operative (although I do have a couple people, or angels who remind me D-I-E-T).  Even pastors can find our faith in a bit of a rut at times, and I know that mine has been sure tested quite a bit these last few months, with the Minerva fire, not always practicing very good self-care, losing beloved members of our congregation, still growing into the role of Pastor to this church and community, and just everyday events that can bring on the stress.  Even though I know I don’t have all my stuff together all of the time, or when I find myself falling into a rut, I get some kind of reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing, just like the angel showed up with Joseph to bring him good news and remind him that his role as Jesus’s earthly father is just as important.  Each of us has probably been in that situation too, where a life event has happened that might just sap your energy and drain your spiritual batteries.  Then God shows up, reminding us that we are God’s beloved.  And, God is still with us, bringing us good news in a bad news kinda world.  As James Moore puts it, “the Christmas gift of good news is the knowledge and assurance that God is with us!  Christ came to underscore this good, joyful news that God is with us…and nothing can separate us from God.”[v] James further explains that “even during life’s worst times, when we think we are alone, God is with us.  And that gives us a powerful hope that strengthens us no matter what happens.”[vi]
          Even if we can’t necessarily see God right before our eyes, yet we get signs and little reminders, like those amazing sunsets this last week.  Even if we can’t see God, our faith in God can give us hope.  That is a gift of good news in itself, especially as we lit the candle of hope earlier on in the service.  Or as our choir sang, God leads us to the way, the truth, and life when we are willing to say yes to God, willing to follow God, and put our trust in God because “through the good news of Jesus, Christmas gives us the gifts of faith, and hope, and love.”[vii] As we prepare to come to the table of Holy Communion and take part in the sacrament, we have this sustaining presence of God represented in the bread and grape juice that can reconnect us to God.  We are invited to become one with God and with Christ when we eat and drink at the table of grace, the table of abundant life. 
As we move through this journey of the season of Advent and think about God’s gift of good news and opening the gifts of God’s grace, who do you know around you that needs a gift of good news, hope, or Love right now?  And how are you taking some time to re-charge your spiritual batteries and give your faith a boost if it’s been running on low or empty as of late?  Joseph received a serious dose of good news when the angel stepped in during his dilemma, as Joseph received the good news that God is with him, that this child he will become earthly father to will be called Emmanuel, God with us. 
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church Say, AMEN!! 

[i] James W. Moore, All I Want for Christmas: Opening the Gifts of God’s Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 11. 

[ii] "Commentary On Matthew 1:18-25 By Ron Allen". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed November 30 2017.

[iii] Moore, 12. 
[iv] Ibid. 
[v] Ibid. 
[vi] Moore, 13. 
[vii] Ibid.  

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