Archive for February 2012

Celebrity Jesus?

February 8, 2012

Mark 1:29-39
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.  32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Epiphany5 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-5-11

Children’s Time: I brought my First Aid Kit to church today.  When you have a cut on your arm or leg, what’s the first thing you should do?  Yes, ask mom or dad for help!  And what will they do?  Put a bandage on it?  Ask you, “what happened?” And make it better.  Jesus does the same in our lesson today.  He helps Simon’s mother, who is sick.  He finds out what happened (she had a fever) and he helps her up.  And you know what?  She gets up and serves them.  When you meet someone who is hurting, you can do the same.  Ask them what happened and help make it better by serving.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever wondered what being a celebrity would be like? On the one hand, it might be nice to be famous – to have adoring fans who support your work and like you a lot – you would probably be paid well to travel and speak at events or on TV. But on the other hand, being a celebrity must really stink. You can never go out in public without people pestering you or asking for an autograph. “Don’t I know you?” Or, “You know, you look a lot like ____.” And once they know who you are, you’re done for. You might as well take cover. Wear sunglasses. Whatever it takes. “Just leave me alone, why don’t you! Can’t a guy get any peace and quiet around here?”

That’s kind of how I envision Jesus in our lesson for today. He’s only barely begun in his ministry and already he needs to get away from it all. Early in the morning while it was still dark he took off by himself to pray. When the disciples finally caught up with him, they said, “Everyone is searching for you!” It’s no surprise, either, since just the night before the whole city was gathered outside his front door! Jesus brought healing to them. He cast out demons and restored people to their families.

So what does he say? “Give me a break, guys! Let’s go the neighboring towns. I’ve had enough of these people.” No, he says, “Let’s go the neighboring towns, for that is what I came to do.” The message was meant for everyone. From the very beginning, Jesus kept it on the move. And those he encountered along the way were never the same again.

The poet, Maya Angelou, once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How did Jesus make people feel?  Do you think we’ll ever know?  We have the words he said – we know the deeds he did – but imagine how he made people feel! Taking Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, he raised her up and the fever left her.

Being famous was never the goal. Being faithful to the mission to spread the good news, bringing healing to the sick – that’s where it was at for Jesus. And that mission hasn’t changed in 2000 years. When he ascended into heaven, leaving the disciples standing there on that hillside, Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This mission he started was to be completed by his followers (that’s us) by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, we go to the hospital rooms and join hands to pray for the sick. We bow our heads when natural disasters strike and pray for healing and comfort to those who have lost everything. We ourselves are lifted up from what we could not heal from ourselves and are sent to serve others. There is nothing so compelling as a person who has a story of healing to tell. And tells it. A story of a life restored and of finding one’s purpose!  We do know how it feels to meet Jesus, because he lives through our faith and the stories of others’ faith.

So, do we dare to pray for healing, as those who brought the sick to Jesus?

As far as I can tell, Jesus healed people instantly. But there was another side to his healing that we rarely saw: the restoring of that person to the community. Healing meant a person was well enough to re-enter life in the community. One’s whole purpose in life is bound by a calling – what they were meant to be and to do. Healing restores not only the health of a person – but their purpose in life as well. You can go back to work. You can start playing the piano again. You can now read the newspaper after those pesky cataracts were removed.

We, as a nation, have yet to fully grieve the events of September 11th, 2001 and to heal as a nation. After being struck a severe blow to our defenses at the World Trade Center, America struck back with 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But has it brought healing and restored community? As we speak, a groundswell of protest and government crackdowns are unfolding in Syria. King Assad of Syria rules with terror – killing his own people for speaking out and exercising the freedoms we so often take for granted. And now, Israel is threatening military action against Iran over its development of nuclear weapons. All around the world people use fear and intimidation to influence one another.

But Jesus’ reign will not be marked by brutal retaliation, fear and violence. He comes with healing in his hands and restores people to their community. And those who are made well, rise up in service (as did Simon’s mother-in-law). Rather than lash out with vengeance, we as a nation must reach out in service and hope with a clear purpose for the United States in the world’s arena.

How does this translate in our own community? We as a church have come through a difficult year, both economically and with internal conflict over issues of leadership. But the same teaching holds true. Jesus healing ought to propel us into service!

This coming Lenten season, we are making listening the theme. Each Wednesday night worship will focus on a different Bible character who had a lesson to learn in listening. In addition, we will host a series of Cottage Meetings held in people’s homes to open up some conversation on what God is calling this church to be and to do in the coming years. Listening is a big part of that – listening for God and to each other. I hope you’ll take part in one of those sessions.

Now, I know that healing doesn’t happen overnight. It takes care of the wounded through prayer and listening. We take small steps before we can put our full weight upon the task of our mission once again. As with any broken bone, you don’t get back up and go running without some time on crutches or physical therapy.

But run we will.

“They that wait upon the Lord,” the scriptures promise, “shall renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” When we look to Jesus, the source of all healing and strength, we are renewed.

This goes for personal life as well. Where is healing most needed in your life – in your home – in your school – in your workplace? How might your presence in those places be a force for healing and well-being? How will you listen to your life – and to those around you – for the healing that needs to happen through the power of the Holy Spirit?

We live in a culture of celebrity, a culture that is mesmerized by fame and fixated on who’s in rehab and whose marriages lasted the shortest.

But what we have to offer comes from a much deeper place. A place of humility and vulnerability. A place where God reached out to us when we could not help ourselves. And. Healed. Us.

Let us rise in service to others with this remarkable story of good news and healing for all people.
Amen.

Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds together as one in Christ, Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Of Medicine, Miracles, & Magic

February 8, 2012

Mark 1:21-28
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Epiphany4 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 1-29-11

Children’s Time: Do you like to play games? You should read the rules first, right? Who makes up the rules? Whoever thought up the game, right! But, what if someone doesn’t play “by the rules”? How does that make you feel? Not very good, right? When Jesus came to teach in his place of worship he showed them the rules (The Bible) but acted like he was the one that wrote it! And, since we believe he is God’s son, then yes, he can change the rules. He taught as someone who had authority – who was in charge. God gave us the Bible so we would have rules for living a good life. Let’s thank God and pray that we too can live by the rules. (Source: Sermons4Kids.com)

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

What’s your favorite commercial for medicine? Some of the ones I remember are:
“I’ve got a headache this big… and it’s got Excedrin written all over it.”
Halls cough drop lozenges: “Duthing can penetrate dis stuffy dose!” Well, sure enough it did!
Or, for allergy medicine: “I found peace after I took Allegra!”

We always give so much authority to our doctors – and that’s okay, to a certain extent. They’re the ones we should trust when we get sick or injured. And pharmaceutical companies are a close second – marketing directly to the consumer through advertisements on TV and in magazines. “Don’t take Glupitor if you have a history of high blood pressure, nausea, paranoia, yada, yada… Some side effects may occur, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, blah, blah, blah…”

We know that there’s more to healing than just the body. There’s the mind and the spirit at work in a person. There’s stress and anxiety to take into account. Prayer and a higher power all play a part in our overall wellness.

In fact, in our gospel lesson for today, we witness the healing of a demon-possessed man. That sentence alone tips us off that we’re not in Kansas anymore. I mean, how many times do people turn in a prayer request: “Please pray for Irene McDonald who is oppressed by the Devil”? That just doesn’t happen… but when we open the pages of the Bible, we enter a different time and place.

According to Howard Clark Kee, there are three kinds of healing in the Bible: medicine, miracle and magic:
He defined medicine as “a method of diagnosis of human ailments and prescription for them based on a combination of theory about and observation of the body, its functions and malfunctions.” Miracle claims “that healing can be accomplished through appeal to, and subsequent action by the gods, either directly or through a chosen intermediary agent.” Magic is a technique that utilizes words, actions, or the inherent powers of certain objects to achieve a personal desired end, good or ill. Each phenomenon presupposes a certain view of what causes sickness and how it is to be remedied.

The predominant view we see in the Bible is of miracles. Sickness was often considered a punishment for sin. Or, a result of demonic forces. Evil within or without is what caused illness. What they needed was a miracle. Casting out Satan or confessing one’s sin was as much a remedy then as Tylenol is today. With magic there was, perhaps, a curse that needed to be purged and some spittle and mud will do just the trick – or some words uttered over the lifeless body of a little girl, “Talitha Cum” before she could rise again to new life.

In fact, in our second lesson for today you have Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. On the one hand, he admits that it’s no big deal. “We know these aren’t really gods at all… there’s only One God!” But on the other hand, “There are people who are really worried about their eternal souls if they should eat that food. You and I may not have a problem with it, but because it’s causing them to stumble, I’ll pass on the Idol Buffet.”

Clearly, back then, the one people looked to for healing was “the man of the cloth” (their priest or rabbi). Today we still talk to our priests and pastors when we are in need of healing. But more often, it’s the man or woman in the white lab coat that we turn to when we are sick. I did a quick Google search for the phrase “ask your doctor” – it turned up 50 million websites, compared to “ask your pastor” which came in at about half of that: 25 million.

Still, there is a spiritual key to healing and wellness. Sin and the powers of darkness are no less potent in their ability to drag us down into doubt and despair. Prayer and meditation still play a role in bringing about healing – and yes, miracles.

It does matter that we offer a hand of touch on the shoulder and a prayer for a miracle.
It does matter that we say ‘the right words’ in praying the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Ps. together.
It does matters that we pay attention and listen to one another.
Medicine, miracles and magic are still all around us.

The healing of Paul’s community happened when people looked past their freedom to eat that food and looked into their neighbor’s eyes with love.
“So, you have this liberty, great, but don’t flaunt it for the sake of those who don’t yet know.”
“Love builds up,” says Paul, “but knowledge puffs up. Love trumps knowledge every time.”

No one likes a know-it-all. The Corinthians had turned the Lord’s Supper into a private party, where some were getting drunk and others were going hungry. Paul called them on it. He outlines for them what true love is (1Cor. 13) – Love is, patient and kind – it’s a love that never ends… They had been so caught up in being right – that they missed out on being faithful and showing love.

So Jesus redefines the rules – he teaches with authority and they are both amazed and outraged. Nothing would ever be the same again because he questioned the status quo – their status quo – and called them to a new way of living in freedom and in love.

My prayer for us all is that we can be open to healing in new ways in body, mind and spirit – that we might build up in love rather than puff up with knowledge – so that true and lasting healing might come to this place – through this place – in Jesus’ name.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds together as one in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Do I know you?

February 8, 2012

John 1:43-51
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Epiphany2 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 1-18-11

Children’s Time: Who knows you better than anyone else? I mean this person knows your name and your favorite foods and your favorite color and where you’re ticklish. Who knows you? (Mom & Dad?) Yes. (Brother or Sister?) To be sure. Did you know that God knows about all that stuff and MORE?!? Not to hold it against you, but to celebrate who you are! God cares about you and wants to know everything about you.  Let’s thank God for caring enough to get to know us and love us as his own.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

What is it like to be known by someone? Especially someone you didn’t know? It can be both flattering and a little creepy. Or maybe we become suspicious: “Just what does she want, anyway?” Anyone who’s lived long enough knows there are good reasons to keep our guard up when someone wants to know more about us. But how does that affect our life of prayer – our connection to God as God’s children?

Wouldn’t you know it, there’s “knowing” all throughout the lessons for this Sunday: For the boy, Samuel, it required knowing the voice of God, who calls in the night. He had no idea what was going on. The first few times he thought it was his mentor, Eli, calling from the other room!

For Nathaniel, it was Jesus who knew him, simply be paying attention to him as he sat under the fig tree. “I noticed you,” he says, “sitting under the fig tree. I thought to myself, ‘Here’s an Israelite who’s pure in heart – there’s not deceit in him.’”

And, in our Psalm today (Ps. 139), we are known in our inmost selves by God, who knit us together in our mother’s womb – intricately woven in the depths of the earth. There’s this rich poetry of how much we are known by our maker – and how we can have intimacy with God!

Now, I don’t know about you, but there are some times that I’d just assume not be known. Know what I mean? Times when I’ve messed up or don’t feel presentable to stand before those prodding eyes of the Almighty.

Especially when it comes to our bodies, we’re taught to hide and be ashamed. In a culture where youth and stamina is lifted up over and against cellulose and the wrinkles wrought by time, it’s easy to hide and desire not to be known.

A couple of examples might be helpful here: First, from Sister Margaret Dorgan, (who is a Catholic nun with the Diocean Carmelites of Maine). She writes about bodies as we get older:
“Yes, there are alterations in our five senses. Scientific data record possible impairment of hearing in the middle 40’s, of vision, touch, and taste in the middle 50’s, and of smell in the middle 70’s. Skin becomes thinner. Our teeth ask for increased dental care. But that doesn’t mean we smile less. Sleep may become elusive or hold us in its grip. Legs and arms, shoulders and waists, hands and feet, wrists and toes can issue complaints as they never did before. I should have noticed you more, aching feet, when you caused me no discomfort. So much that we took for granted, now presses upon us. St. Paul speaks of “life in the flesh. That means fruitful labor for me.” (Phil 1:22) Added years are not a source of mourning. The term advancing age is appropriate because it truly is a matter of forward motion…”

What if we approached our bodies – our selves – with such care and concern that the Almighty does? Still feeling a bit squeamish? Listen to what former Bishop of the ELCA, H. George Anderson, once said: “In America today, we want comfort, pleasure, and to be left alone. What we need are service, sacrifice, and to be brought together.”  I think we need both: comfort and service / pleasure and sacrifice / alone time and a community in which to find belonging and purpose.

But that means listening to the call and risking following. There are a lot of great resources out there today about leadership and how to be successful in business. And yet, not much has been taught about followership. The art of following one’s leader – not blindly or without questioning – but through partnership and mutual accountability. When Jesus said, “Come and see” to Nathaniel, it was an invitiation for us all. “You will see even greater things than these,” Jesus said. The “You” was plural in the Greek, so it was meant for all those who were standing there – hearers past, present and future.

How are we hearing the call to follow Jesus today – like Nathaniel did way back then?
How are you doing at calling others to know Christ? Mentoring is coming up in a few weeks… You have an opportunity to be an ‘Eli’ to a younger ‘Samuel’ in our confirmation ministry.

As the story goes, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, wanted desperately to have a son. So much so, that she struck a deal with the Lord that if she could bear a son, she would “give him back” to the Lord, to serve in the temple all the days of his life. So was the story of how Samuel came to be in the temple that night with his master, Eli, asleep in their chambers. And then it came – that voice of the Lord, to one so young…he thought it was his teacher. Three times… until he finally said, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

That’s all it took. And, of course, the message wasn’t good. Eli was to be punished for not teaching his children in the way of the Lord. It says that they were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them. And yet, here he is with little Samuel – perhaps his “second chance” to get it right – of raising this boy in the faith: his little apprentice, so full of promise and ripe for learning.

Another way to be known is through listening to one another: This Lent we will be hosting cottage meetings here at church and in the homes of people from this community. All for the purpose of listening. No hidden agenda. No pressure sale to give more. Just a genuine desire to get to know one another – and to hopefully begin to see a pattern emerge of where God is calling us in our future ministry together.

I’d like to close with this simple story about an old rabbi who once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the Rabbi.
“Could it be,” inquired another, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” the Rabbi replied.
“Well, then, what is it?” his pupils demanded.
The teacher responded: “It is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”

Come and see, is what Jesus said. It’s a standing invitation to know and be known as brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Do you hear what I hear?

February 8, 2012

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Baptism of Christ Sunday / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 1-8-12

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace: from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we celebrate with a service of the bells. Bells call us to order. They remind us of something. It’s time to get out of bed! Time for school to begin. Dinner time! In 1624, John Donne, reminded us “for whom the bell tolls… it tolls for thee.” This was a reference to bells being rung at funerals or on All Saints Day to commemorate the death of loved ones.

The emergency alert system is a series of bells and buzzers in the event of a natural disaster or emergency. And they go to great lengths to say, “This is only a test. Repeat, this is only a test. If this had been an actual emergency you would be informed on where to turn in your community for help.” But if you ever heard that bell-like buzzer over the air, you’d know it. 

So what do we hear in our gospel lesson today? Certainly no bells a-ringing. But there is water. The current of the Jordan River, as it wraps around Jesus’ ankles and flows downstream. He’s standing there with John at the beginning of his ministry – and already he’s all washed up!

Here is no ordinary baptism. Many had come already to be baptized – to confess their sins and be washed clean. This is what water does for us.

Water reminds us of thirst being quenched. Of plants being nourished. Of dirt being washed away. Water helps move freight up and down stream. No other element is as central to basic survival than water. We all need it – from the tiniest of sea creatures to the animals and plants on land. And, we all recognize the sound of it, whether it be a babbling brook, raindrops on an umbrella or a raging sea.

And yet, through the eyes of faith, water is a sign of cleansing and re-birth. Throughout the Bible, water has been a symbol of God’s love and care for people. God saved Noah and his family from the great flood. God brought the people of Israel through the Red Sea, out of slavery, into the freedom of the Promised Land. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, making water a sign of our identity in Christ: “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

So there’s the sound of water. What else do we hear? The voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

I find it interesting that Jesus hadn’t even done anything yet! His career was just beginning. And yet, God was pleased with him already. There’s praise here at the onset of Jesus’ ministry. So, too, there’s praise for us, as God’s children – named and claimed in baptism: “You are my son – my daughter – with you I am well-pleased!”

And to drive his point home, God tears open the heavens, descending like a dove on him. The Greek word for “tear” is skizo. And that word only shows up one other time in the gospel of Mark. At the very end, when Jesus breathes his last.

In Mark 15:38, as Jesus dies, the curtain on the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom. Skizo. And, while there is no voice from heaven, the Roman centurion declares, “Truly this man was the son of God!”

In other words, Jesus’ ministry is bookended with heavenly terrors and voices declaring just who he is. Mark makes no mistake in pointing us in that direction.

So, what bells toll for you in life? What goes off, ringing in your ears – calling you to attention? A cell phone? An alarm clock? The bleep of an email alert? The chirp of a hearing aid, calling for a new battery?

Let’s commit ourselves to listen to the Lord this day – to listen to the water and the word. Every time you wash your hands or take a bath or shower – let those waves remind you of your new life in Christ. Every time you hear of the terrors of hurricanes, floods or tsunamis, let your heart turn to Christ, that refuge and strength we have in the storms of life. Every time you feel a snow flake melt on your cheek or jacket after coming in from shoveling – let the thought ring out – and remind you of the life-giving waters that nourish and sustain us, through the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray: O God, you created us and all that exist. We look to you for our every need. Wash us clean each day in the waters of baptism – let your clarion call come to us, getting our attention once again, that we may ring out clear the hope we have in you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Christmas Eve 2011

February 8, 2012

Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Children’s Time: Why do you suppose God chose to come into the world as a baby? I mean, if God really wanted to get our attention don’t you think he could have shown up on TV? (I know, they didn’t have American Idol back then) He could have come with fireworks and parachuted down into the middle of a football field at halftime. But that wasn’t God’s style. God came as a baby. So, what do babies need? To be fed, to have their diapers changed, to be rocked in the night. To be loved. I think love is the lesson of Christmas. “How am I supposed to fall in love with these people I created?” God must’ve thought. “I know! I’ll come as a baby!” And we all know that that baby grew up to become the man, Jesus, who gave his life for the whole world and was raised from the dead at Easter so we never have to fear death. What a gift God has given us in his son! Let’s thank God for babies and for sending us Jesus, his son.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord, and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I can still remember the first time I gave a box of chocolate to a girl. She didn’t like it. Oh, it’s not that she didn’t like chocolate. She just didn’t like me. Maybe I had come on too strong. Or just wasn’t her type. Who knows – when you’re 14! I think her mom talked her into getting me something in return; because next time they stopped over for a visit she had a gift for me: a bottle of Brut cologne with a matching soap-on-a-rope. Not bad. But the fact that it was still in the paper sack, with the receipt in the bottom – that pretty much sealed my fate with her.

So, what does it mean to receive a gift from someone? I mean, we’re pretty good at being givers. We like to believe that the Christmas season brings out the best in us. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who learned to be generous, we have this idea that it’s better to give than to receive. That’s because receiving is something altogether different. Why do we sometimes feel obligated to give something in return, if we receive? Or, even going so far as to say: “I just can’t accept this gift.”

I haven’t heard it, but I’m told there’s a show on KDWB where people can call in and share their stories and they decide whether it’s “Sweet or Stalker.” What is true giving and what is just manipulation? What is true love and what is just creepy-get-a-restraining-order obsession?

Jesus is neither a sweet talker nor a creepy stalker – he’s the savior. God may have come as a baby – but this little man-child grew into young leader, who lived a human life – who faced temptation and hardship – who suffered, bled and died on a cross, for the sins of the whole world! Who was raised in victory once and for all!

When you come to think of it, we really have very little to do with Christmas – it’s sort of beyond us all – beyond our control as we stand here in awe at the manger. We didn’t ask for this gift. It comes without our consent. And yet, according to the angels, this is good news of great joy for all people.

50 years ago, most of us weren’t even here when a handful of families gathered at the Landfall Village Hall and decided to start a church here in Oakdale. There, on the shores of Tanner’s Lake a church was born. We didn’t ask for it. We had little to do with it. But just imagine all the lives that have been touched these 50 years in this place! Vows that were made, loved ones laid to rest after all their labors. Children who were taught, land that was bought, hammers that were pounded while the cornerstone was grounded. Stories that were shared of how God transformed your lives, tears that were shed for the undeserved gift God gives.

And here we are today, ready to turn the page on 2011 and write a new chapter for 2012 at Holy Cross – who knows what the next 50 years will hold for this community of faith? All we know for certain is that we each have a role to play. The future is pregnant with promise. Do you see how this never was just about Mary & Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds? Do you see yourself in this story along with the wise men and the angels? There’s rawness and urgency in this story. There’s real work to be done.

In our lesson for tonight, Mary was in the moment – all she had heard from the angel Gabriel was coming true: “You will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus.” Nine months of waiting and preparation had come down to this: riding on a donkey half the night, giving birth in a little town of Bethlehem, with nothing but a manger to lay him in. It was her first time – all she could do was surrender to this child who was coming, ready or not. Wild-eyed, biting her lower lip, she pushed harder than she’d ever pushed before (they don’t call it labor for nothing).

And then it was over. Or was it just beginning? Thirty years later, this Jesus would grow into a man who would feed the hungry, and comfort the grieving, saying, “Those who lose their lives for my sake, will find it.”

So, what are you pushing for these days? What in your life is emerging – coming forth – ready or not? Maybe it’s beyond your control and you feel as if you’re just out there, barely hanging on. What hard labor lies in your future? What pushing that needs to be done to get there?

All of who you are – all you’ve experienced up until this point – have led you to this moment. All the waiting has culminated into one final push where you give it all you’ve got – even as you surrender to the moment.

~When you slide onto that piano bench and open your recital music for one last time.
~When you take your place at the front of the class and call your students to attention.
~When your dispatcher sends you that 911 call and you put on the lights and siren.
You’re in the moment.
~When your eyes meet the gaze of the next customer, ready to scan her first item.
~When you steady the ladder for your coworker up above.
~When you ease out onto Interstate 694 knowing that most of us have forgotten how to drive in this stuff.
You’re in the moment.
~When you take out your checkbook or click on your PayPal account to commit to a cause.
~When you turn over the test and the teacher says, “You may begin.”
~When you make your stand through the pain and confusion throwing yourself at the mercy of Almighty God.

You surrender all that you are to what will be and you give it all you’ve got.

So much in life is beyond our control – we can only surrender to what is unfolding around us. And yet, we have a job to do – there’s work to be done – babies to be fed – meals to prepare – gifts to be given – and received.

Thanks be to God, for the gift of Jesus Christ – the Savior of the world! Receive him with joy and with faith this Christmas! Then get out there and push!

Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.