Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Prepare the Way: Welcome" - Sermon, December 23, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy
“Prepare the Way: Welcome”
Rev. Andrew Davis
December 23, 2018
Micah 5: 2-5a
Luke 1: 39-55

            These last few days, I’ve had the rock band Europe’s song, “The Final Countdown” stuck in my head; or this morning, I have “One Day More” from the musical “Les Miserables” continuously playing in my head. Ready or not, we find ourselves at the final Sunday of Advent as we prepare to cross the threshold from Advent to Christmas with tomorrow being Christmas Eve.  While we have been preparing the way of the Lord these last four week, it really feels like it’s only been a week, as time has gone by so fast and only gets faster each year.  I remember having one of those paper Advent calendars when I was younger, where we would open up a panel each day to reveal something about what is to happen at Christmas and before we knew it, all 25 panels were open; or I’d watch presents gradually appear under the Christmas tree, trying to guess what’s inside before Christmas Day and excited when my guess was right. 
Advent is a time of anticipation, along with actively preparing the way of the Lord as we make room to welcome the Christ child into our lives once again at Christmas.  As we reach the final countdown of our Advent journey, which concludes at sunset on Christmas Eve, we aren’t sitting idle as we prepare to welcome people into our homes, whether it’s a family dinner or informal gathering with friends, or as we are preparing to be welcomed into another home if we are traveling.  Or as we do every Sunday throughout the year, but even more so at this time of year and on Easter Sunday, we are getting ready to welcome many visitors through the doors of our sanctuary as we all worship together and celebrate the birth of Christ tomorrow night, whether we come through these doors each week, or only every now and then.  Nevertheless, all are welcome here!!    
On the other hand, there are some who are struggling to welcome Christmas because of experiencing loss, being angry at someone or even with God, or for a myriad of other reasons that make this time of year difficult.  This past Wednesday night, we welcomed people into our sanctuary who are struggling with this time of year and struggling to find joy, or those who just needed a quiet space and escape from the sensory overload this time of year brings, as we had our Blue Christmas service.  While our sanctuary might not be packed to the brim for a midweek service, we still need to offer this kind of space too and provide a welcome for those who struggle.  Even in the scriptures, there was some struggle to welcome something new, such as the priest, Zechariah struggling to believe the angel Gabriel telling him that his wife, Elizabeth is pregnant, or in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph struggling with the news that Mary is pregnant.  Or even Mary, struggling to make sense of Gabriel’s message at first before saying yes to God before welcoming the news that she would be the earthly mother of God’s son.  Even when we struggle, even when we may have a hard time finding joy, or even if we are approaching this timeless story for the hundredth time or for the first time, we have an opportunity to welcome the Christ child into our midst, along with welcoming others to join us on this journey of faith.  
As we just read in our Gospel lesson from the first chapter of Luke, we hear the story of Mary’s visit to her older cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John, who we will come to know as John the Baptist who would be the hype-man and front-runner of Jesus’s earthly ministry.  Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth was not an easy in any way given that Elizabeth lived in the Hill Country, as Mary had to travel a great length in mountainous terrain, kind of like navigating the Sierras or some of the many trails around here. Imagine making that journey while in the early stages of pregnancy.  Amidst the challenges of that journey, when Mary reaches Elizabeth’s home, she is welcomed with open arms, and not just open arms, but an exclamation of joy from Elizabeth.  Elizabeth knows something is special with Mary, as the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy when Mary comes to see Elizabeth, which had to feel like a very hard kick.  
Backing up a little bit to before Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, after an address to Theopholis, Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist being foretold, then the priest, Zechariah being told by the angel Gabriel that his wife will become pregnant, yet doesn’t believe the news that Gabriel tells him and is silenced for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  Although she is much older than Mary, Elizabeth has been barren, unable to have children all this time, which makes this a miraculous birth when Elizabeth becomes pregnant.  In the passage leading up to this morning’s lesson, the Angel Gabriel visits Mary and in what’s called “The Annunciation” that is often depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art.  Gabriel tells Mary that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that her infant will be named Jesus, then tells Mary the news that Elizabeth is pregnant too, as we then see Mary say, “here I am,” unlike Zechariah’s response which leaves him silenced.  
So here we are at chapters 39-55, encountering Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and as a response to Elizabeth’s acclamation of joy, Mary sings a song of joy known as the Magificat, another work that has been an inspiration for several choral masterworks.  This song of joy is a response to Mary’s big yes to God, to being the earthly mother of Jesus, and foreshadows the way that this baby is going to change the world. When this baby grows up, he will bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, and bring about an ‘upside-down kingdom.’ In the Old Testament lessons we have been reading, this baby will ultimately fulfill the prophecies that have foretold his birth such as what we heard in Micah, and even what we’ve already read to this point in Zepheniah, Jeremiah, and Malachi during this Advent season.  Mary is realizing that as she is welcomed by Elizabeth, this is no ordinary child, considering how John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, which becomes welcome news when Mary comes to this realization. It’s a welcome response to how God is faithful as Mary says yes to God.  
Even though many of us may know the story of Christmas well, or if the Christmas story is new to you, Jesus’s birth is always welcome at this time of year, as it’s a chance to experience a birth and even a re-birth of our faith, maybe a birth of adopting new disciplines into our lives, as the Christmas story is a way of showing how God’s work is still coming to fruition, even today. During the first part of Advent, we focused on the Parousia, or second coming of Christ, which we are still awaiting just like the people had been waiting for the messiah up to 3-400 years before Jesus’s birth.  Even while in between times and in the now, but not-yet between Jesus’s arrival and second coming, God still needs us and needs our hands to do the work that Jesus was sent to do. The birth of Jesus in each of us at Christmas today is a welcome opportunity to consider how we can be the hands and feet of Christ, or like our mission statement for our church says, how we can be Jesus’s ambassadors here on earth. In his Advent study book from 2011, The Journey, Rev. Adam Hamilton explains that as we hear the words of the “Magnificat” or “Mary’s Song,” 
It is an invitation for us to humble ourselves before God and to be [equipped] by god to fulfill the first words of that line – to help the poor walk away full [and to pass along blessings each of us has received].”[i]

            So how are we going to humble ourselves before God, or another way of re-framing that, how are we going to say yes to God as Christ is born and as we look ahead to 2019?  Instead of the judgment, anxiety, and fear that we hear messages of more often than not in the news today or in some of the writings we heard earlier in the Advent season, how are we going to leave such messages behind in order to welcome a savior and new life?[ii]Likewise, how are we going to allow God’s love to enter into each of us this Christmas and throughout the year?  As we concluded our Advent study, Down to Earth on Wednesday night, I was reading the epilogue afterward and Rev. Mike Slaughter got my attention when he writes 
Before we can love like Jesus, walk in the humility of Jesus, practice the servant lifestyle of Jesus, or say our big yes of obedience to Jesus, we must accept the full significance of God’s love.  We must allow ourselves to be loved, so that in turn we will find ourselves compelled to do love.  We must unwrap the greatest gift ever given by our down-to-earth God, accept it for ourselves, and then extend it through Christ to others.[iii]

            As we think about what it means to welcome Christ into our hearts once again or even welcome Christ into your heart for the first time, let’s welcome love too, just like we sang in the hymn of praise, “Love Came Down at Christmas.” Let’s take this opportunity to walk in Christ’s love, while we allow ourselves to be loved too, even loving ourselves, something I’m still learning to do.  And as we go into this Christmas season and unwrap the love, how can each of us become more involved in ministries of love and caring, not just at Christmas, but throughout the new year ahead?  
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church Say Amen!!  

[i]Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 75.
[ii]Irving Cotto 
[iii]Mike Slaughter & Rachel Billups, Down to Earth: The Hopes and Fears of All the Years are Met in Thee Tonight (Nashville: 2016), 114.  

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