“Now I’ve Seen Everything”–Sermon for First Sunday in Christmas, December 31, 2017

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Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:22-40

Children’s Message:

Are you all going to stay up until midnight tonight (New Year’s Eve)? What kinds of things will you do to celebrate when midnight hits? When I was little, we’d have my aunt and uncle and cousins over—the adults would watch movies we kids couldn’t watch while the kids worked to tear up a box of Kleenex to use as confetti when midnight rolled around.

Do you think anything will change with the new year? What do you hope might be different? I think we all hope something will be different next year.

But sometimes, I find it hard to wait, don’t you? I find it hard to stay up all the way until midnight. Maybe that’s because I’m old. Or maybe because I don’t expect much different from a new year.

Today, we got to hear the story of a man named Simeon who knew what it felt like to wait…and wait…and wait. God promised that he would see the Messiah—God’s promised salvation—before he died. When he saw Jesus, he knew God had kept God’s promise. And he expected that things would change for his world—even if he wasn’t around to see the changes. I hope that our new year will bring new and exciting things for all of us—good news of great joy—a light in the darkness.

Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for showing us your light in Jesus. Help us reflect the light and live the changes we want to see in our world. Amen.

Message:

The story of Simeon and Anna reminds me of a Friends episode in which Phoebe has someone die on her massage table. She’s convinced that the elderly Jewish woman didn’t travel far and is now residing in Phoebe. Throughout the episode, Phoebe says odd things and references people she doesn’t know—clearly channeling the old woman. Desperate, she contacts the woman’s husband, wanting to know what unfinished business she might have had. He told her that she wanted to see everything. So, Phoebe takes her to all of the major tourist sites throughout New York City.

Finally, at the end of the episode, Phoebe is attending the wedding of Ross’ ex-wife and her partner. As the two women begin to exchange vows, the old woman says, “Well, now I’ve seen everything,” and departs.

God promised Simeon that he would see ‘everything’ before he died—everything, in this case, meaning the most important thing to any Jewish person: the promised Messiah. By the time Jesus is brought to the Temple, it appears that Simeon is quite old. In my hometown, there was a woman who lived to be 112 years old. She was in the nursing home. Her mind was sharp, but her body was not—she was nearly deaf and couldn’t see anymore. She was ready to die. Each birthday felt like a betrayal.

I wonder if that is how Simeon felt—waiting to be released, but knowing that he was supposed to be part of something bigger first—unfinished business.

The day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, there would have been a lot of things going on—babies being dedicated, people offering sacrifices, money changers in front of the temple, people milling, praying. But the Spirit guided Simeon to the temple that day and took him straight to Jesus. He knew immediately what this meant. He took the child from his parents—imagine what that scene must have been like—and held him close, praising God.

“Lord, now let you servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared for all people—a light to the Gentiles and glory for Israel.” His song says so much. He is praising God for the opportunity to die, as well as the opportunity to know that God has fulfilled God’s promise. He recognizes that Jesus isn’t just fulfillment for Israel but for the whole world—something that even the Temple authorities weren’t expecting. Simeon was the first to see Jesus for what he truly was—a light for all nations.

But then, he turns to Mary and says the most ominous thing: “Your son is destined to tear people down and build people up. He will be opposed in order to reveal the true hearts of those in power. And his life will break your heart.” Not exactly the blessing a mom wants to hear.

And then along comes Anna—an old woman who had lived at the Temple in poverty, being widowed without sons to provide for her. As soon as she saw Joseph carry Jesus into the Temple—women weren’t allowed inside—Anna began telling everyone she saw about the child who would redeem Israel. I can’t imagine the scene she was causing among everything else going on around her.

For Anna and Simeon, the wait was over. The promised Messiah had arrived. They saw the truth being revealed to the world and shouted it from the rooftops. And I doubt anyone listened. I can imagine the scene—people making a wide circle around the old beggar who talked excitedly about a baby being brought for dedication. Babies are brought to the Temple every day. Crazy old lady. Maybe they felt sorry for her and gave her a coin as they passed.

A little further in, the old man is going on about getting to finally die. And he’s ignored by everyone except the parents of this child who are probably scared witless by his words. Why is it, when you experience the most amazing thing in your life, there is no way to share it completely with others?

Last spring, as we were discerning the direction of music ministry here, we talked quite a bit about what connects people in worship. Some people really connect with certain hymns. Others with certain praise songs. Some love having choir leadership. Others, a band with drums and a good beat. And I remember thinking how impossible it is to fully share your experience with someone else—for me, what it’s like to sing in an incredible choir surrounded by accomplished musicians; how I felt in worship with other college students singing certain praise songs at the top of our lungs; singing hymns in harmony with my colleagues who all loved to sing hymns in harmony. Just being a part of something massive and knowing that others feel the same way.

There are no words to let someone else into that experience. And yet, we have to try. The same goes for the gospel and just how important and meaningful the good news is for me and you and the world. As someone who deals with words everyday, there are no words to encompass the power of the Word made flesh and what that means. And yet, we must try. Like Simeon and Anna, we can’t just let it be a private reality—something we hold onto for ourselves. Like Jeremiah, if we don’t say something, we will burst.

That is the good news. It is meant for the world. It is a light to the Gentiles and glory to Israel. It has the power to tear down the systems of power, corruption, and injustice. It has the grace to restore life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. The good news of Jesus the Messiah cannot be hidden or privatized or assigned only to a certain denomination or race or even religion. Because the good news of God incarnate, as Paul tells the Galatians, has redeemed not only Israel but all nations and all people.

What does that mean for you and me? It’s more than the fact that our sins are forgiven and we can be with Jesus when we die. It means that Jesus is with us now; that life is ours now; that the struggles we face are not ours alone; that our failures do not define us; that the insanity of this world and its powers aren’t the final word but the final act of a defeated enemy. The good news is that the wait is over–our eyes have seen the salvation prepared for all people in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The good news means that, no matter what the new year brings, we have seen everything in the eyes of the newborn Christ.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

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“A Baby Wrecks Everything”—Sermon for Christmas Day, 2017

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Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

Every year at this time, I have to think of the movie “Talladega Nights” with Will Farrell. He and his family are gathered around the dinner table, and he starts offering the table grace. “Dear baby Jesus…” he starts. “Dear tiny baby Jesus…” he continues. When his wife reminds him that Jesus did grow up, he says he likes the Christmas Jesus version the best. And so he goes on, “Dear tiny Jesus with the golden fleece diapers, tiny balled up fists, don’t even know a word yet…”

It’s funny, in part, because it describes how we tend to approach Christmas. We like to come to the manger surrounded by silent animals, adoring parents, amazed shepherds, devoted magi, and angels filled with song. And we hope that, through our worship, we too can return home to silent nights filled with devotion, song, adoration, and amazement. We hope to recreate in our lives the moment when the whole world hushed at the birth of this unknown baby in a small town at the edge of anywhere.

We go home, often expecting to go back in time to family Christmases of the past, when everyone gathered around the tree, Christmas music played in the background, food was in abundance, and there was joy. We might remember the pictures and videos of those childhood Christmases with nostalgia and a little sorrow. Can we make it just as special for our own kids?

But it isn’t reality, is it? The pictures and videos don’t tell us the story of family feuds and siblings fighting over gifts and disappointment at who didn’t come home this year. And the manger scene doesn’t tell us about the irate King Herod or the oppression of Rome. The truth is, this day—this celebration of birth—means nothing without a grown-up Jesus. And so we live another Christmas in the tension of a precious birth and a gruesome death—of hope and despair—of now, but not yet. And we don’t like tension. Which is why, I imagine, more people go to Christmas services than Good Friday services.

There was a pastor who happened to come across his parishioner and 6-year-old son shopping before Christmas. They visited for a bit, and then the parishioner said they’d see the pastor on Christmas for worship. “Church?” the boy said. “On Christmas?” “Yes,” said the parent. “You know that Christmas is about Jesus being born and God coming to live with us.” “I know…but do we have to go to church to celebrate Christmas? Church wrecks everything!”

Isn’t that the truth? Church wrecks everything—and we gather here to worship a God who wrecks everything. That’s what it’s all about. In a world in which power was only for the few, many went hungry, injustice ran rampant, and sin seemed to be in charge, God entered. God entered this world in a most subversive way—right through the back door of kingdom mentality. He wasn’t born to royalty but to a young, unmarried couple. He wasn’t born in a palace but a barn. The news of his birth wasn’t scripted by government messengers or passed along by palace guards. It was sung from the stars by angels and spread by shepherds.

And all along the way, Jesus lived and proclaimed God’s preference for the lowly, the humble, the meek, the oppressed, the outcast, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the sinful, the broken. And all the while, the world showed its preference for the powerful, the rich, the influential, the healthy, the strong, the in-crowd, and the ones who could spin their brokenness and sin into a tapestry of lies meant to delude and mislead.

The world has not changed. And that, perhaps, is the most difficult part about celebrating Christmas each year. The world is still all about power and victory, wealth and success. We still turn away from the homeless and hungry and imprisoned—those who make us uncomfortable—those who seem weak. We don’t want to be bothered with all of that while we’re trying to create our perfect Christmas scenario.

But the miracle of Christmas isn’t that it happened 2000 years ago in a small town of an occupied country. The miracle is that it keeps happening—God continues to enter this world in order to wreck everything we keep working so hard to build. God keeps pushing against our politics and religious divisions. God keeps knocking down the walls we build between us and them. God keeps challenging the ways in which we think things should go. God keeps being born—even daily—into the hearts and lives of God’s beloved children.

But it’s not just an innocent baby we meet in this birth. It’s a Jesus of both manger and cross—a Jesus who is lord of both life and death—the Christ who speaks to us from the beginning of time and compels us to look toward the end with hope and promise. In a moment in time, God entered this world to wreck everything we ever thought about who God is and what God does—to break down our ideas of shame, blame, and retribution.

And then, through Jesus’ resurrection, God reconstructs our world. Swords become plowshares. Walls become shelter. All are fed. All are loved. All are welcomed. All are redeemed. The broken are mended. Relationships restored. It doesn’t happen by our will or our prayers or our depth of understanding or wisdom. It happens as we let go of the perfect scene in a stable and let God enter the messy, noisy chaos of our imperfect lives. For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. Authority rests on his shoulders; and there shall be endless peace.

It is, of course, a peace that has yet to be fulfilled. But it is not beyond our experience.

Today, I pray that every day is a day when Jesus is reborn into our lives in unexpected ways. I pray that God will continue to wreck our plans and upend our systems and undo our expectations. I pray that the baby we seek today will be the adult who seeks us out and holds onto us when we find ourselves in the dark night of our souls. And I pray that in the midst of the dust and rubble that held only our illusions of success and victory, we will perceive God building new and amazing things, bringing unimaginable peace, hope, love, and joy.

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

“Christmas Imagination”–Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2017

imagination

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-20

You may be familiar with the song, “I Can Only Imgaine” sung by the group, Mercy Me.

I can only imagine

What it will be like

When I walk

by your side

 

I can only imagine

What my eyes will see

When your face

is before me.

I can only imagine.

 

Lead singer, Bart Millard, wrote the song after grappling for years with his father’s untimely death after battling cancer. He was only 13 and a freshman in high school when his dad died. And everyone kept telling him that his dad was in a better place—that if he could choose to stay in heaven or return to earth, he would stay with God in heaven. To a 13-year-old, that wasn’t exactly comforting. So, he kept writing down the phrase, “I can only imagine,” bringing comfort and sparking his imagination about what would be so great about heaven that his dad would choose that over being with him.

I can only imagine

When that day comes

And I find myself

Standing in the sun.

 

I can only imagine

When all I will do

Is forever

Forever worship you.

I can only imagine.

When I was pregnant with Seth, and his due-date loomed ever closer, every drive by the hospital brought on a little jump in my heart. Little excitement—little fear. What would that day be like? How would things unfold? Would he be healthy? Would I be healthy? And after his birth, as any parent can attest, Mark and I pondered the things he would enjoy as he grew up. Would he be a musician? Would he enjoy cars? Would he be into sports? Or art? Or science? Would he prefer working with his hands or with words? We’re still imagining as we watch him read and skate and play the piano and hum Christmas carols as he works on crafts.

I think about these things as we read from Luke: “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She pondered the words of Gabriel who first brought her the news of her pregnancy. She pondered the words of Joseph as he promised to stand by her and marry her and raise this child together. She pondered the words of the shepherds who left the stable in a rush to tell others about the good news. She pondered the words of the magi who brought her and her baby precious gifts. She pondered the words of Jesus after he was found in the temple teaching as a priest would have taught—at the age of 12.

Her pondering wasn’t just a general ‘thinking about’ but an imagining…guarding and keeping these events and words and experiences close to her heart. She imagined what it would mean for God to be born into this world of corruption, sin, and death. She put her imagination to song as she praised God for blessing her and promising to crumble the mountains of tyranny and raise up the valleys of poverty. She imagined what it would mean to raise a child destined to fulfill God’s promise to save Israel from oppression. She imagined what heaven on earth must be like.

But I wonder—could she imagine that the same God who would enter the world as a humble, vulnerable baby would also leave the world in shame, killed by the very forces God was supposed to defeat? Could she imagine that undoing the forces of power and evil would not look like the victory that our world seeks? Could she imagine that even 2000 years later, we would gather in worship around carols and candlelight and completely miss the absolute upheaval that is imminent in such an innocuous birth? Could she imagine how it would end—and how would begin as something new in a resurrection?

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel

Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your glory, or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah,’ will I be able to speak at all

I can only imagine. Yeah. I can only imagine.

What can you imagine on this night? Do you imagine cozy manger scenes? Do you imagine presents being opened? Do you imagine family feasts filled with laughter?

Are you imagining what it would have been like this year if your loved one were still here? If things had been different? If the marriage had lasted? If the job paid better? If it weren’t quite so cold living on the street?

Many of you know I love to read devotions by Fraciscan Richard Rohr. Recent devotions have addressed how we view heaven—as that far-away place we get to go someday when we die. The kind of place we can only imagine. But he challenges that idea. He challenges us to imagine what heaven looks like here—what God’s very real presence is doing now—in this place, this city, this country, this world.

Rohr says, “Our task is simply to embody heaven now. We cannot “get there”; we can only “be there”—which ironically is to “be here!” Love, like prayer, is not so much an action that we do, but a reality that we are. We don’t decide to be loving. Love is our True Self. It is where we came from and where we’re going.”

Let your imagine wrap around that for a while. What would it be like to experience heaven now—to witness Jesus being born in the mangers of our hearts and rising from death every moment of every day of our very lives? Can you imagine God with us?

I can only imagine

What it will be like

When I walk

by your side

 

I can only imagine

What my eyes will see

When your face

is before me.

I can only imagine.

 

Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel

Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your glory, or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah,’ will I be able to speak at all

 

I can only imagine

When all I will do

Is forever

Forever worship you.

I can only imagine.

 

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God’s Invitation”–Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, December 10, 2017

annunciation(I’ve used the Scriptures for Advent 4 this week.)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 1:26-38

 Children’s Message:

Did you hear what the angel told Mary?  The first thing he said was, “Do not be afraid.” Is there anything that scares you? Are you afraid of anything? I used to be afraid to go to the dentist. I was afraid he would find cavities and have to fill them. I also used to be afraid to speak in public. I was afraid that I would say something silly or dumb. I was afraid that no one would listen—or that people would criticize me.

You know what? It all happened. I’ve had cavities filled. And I’ve said some pretty weird and silly things in sermons—I’ve also said things that people have criticized. And I’ve made people mad—some people don’t like me because of what I say or think. And you know what else? I’m not scared anymore—at least not a lot. Because I know that God will walk with me through the times when I am scared.

What about when you are scared? Is God with you?

Now, the angel also told Mary something else—besides that she would give birth to a Son and name him Jesus. She asked him how it could be possible because there was no way for her to be pregnant. And do you know what the angel said? The angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing? Really?

Does that mean that God can make me fly? No…that’s not quite what the angel is saying. What the angel really means is that when God says God will do something, it will happen—no matter how impossible it might sound. And if God says we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us, then we can believe it—no matter what.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for keeping your promises and doing what you say will you do. And thank you for your gift of Jesus, your Son. Help us trust him and follow him, even when it might scare us. In his name we pray. Amen.

Message:

Back in 1938, a district party convention took place in Moscow, presided over by a new secretary (since the previous one had been arrested). During the conference, Stalin was mentioned several times to a thundering response of applause and ovation. The conference finally concluded with a tribute to Stalin. It was met again by thunderous applause that lasted three minutes—four minutes—five.

As the men continued to applaud, hands got raw, arms got tired. The elderly became weary. But no one dared to be the first to stop applauding. The secretary could have brought it to a close, but being new, he was too afraid to take that step. Those in the hallway found some reprieve as they applauded a bit less and leaned against the walls. But those in the front were doomed. There were actually people collapsing and being carried out in stretchers! And yet, the applause continue as the men plastered false enthusiasm on their faces. Nine minutes…ten minutes.

After more than 11 minutes of this applause, an independent-minded factory-owner finally took the initiative and sat down. Thank goodness! The people were saved! But it wasn’t long before this same man was arrested. The military had been watching to see who would sit first. It would be those independent-minded people who would cause problems for Stalin and would need to be stopped before they got started. After his interrogation, the questioner told the man, “Never be the first to stop clapping.”

It doesn’t leave much choice, does it? That is how coercion works. And it leaves no room for hope.

I’m struck, this year in particular, by the story of the angel and Mary. This year, in particular, as we are bombarded with story after story of coercion, sexual harassment, and rape—as more and more women sign their names to the ‘me too’ movement—Mary’s story strikes a nerve. And what jumps out at me is the simple fact that it is NOT a story of coercion. During a time when women were simply seen as possessions, when women’s bodies were not their own but their father’s or husband’s, when there was no such thing as rape because a man could do whatever he wanted—as long as the woman didn’t belong to anyone else—during such a time, God invites.

It would have been completely understandable if Luke hadn’t bothered with the angel. God is God. God can do whatever God wants to do with God’s people. If God is going to choose Mary, then so be it. If God is going to be brought into the world through her, then that’s how it’s going to be. But instead, the angel tells Mary what God hopes for her and for her life. And Mary starts processing what that will mean.

The bottom line is that it would mean risking her life. Talk about being scared! The question is, did she have an option? Do we?

If I look back on my life, I can see God working up to inviting me to be a pastor for a long time—probably starting even when I was young, perusing the hymnal during worship and learning about the church seasons by the sections of hymns. And I remember wanting to know more about God in college—majoring in religion. It seems I mostly learned about the church more than I did about God. And as I kept going deeper, God’s invitation became more evident—even when I was telling my own pastor that I didn’t want to be a pastor—though I did want to go to seminary.

He asked why I didn’t want to be a pastor. And I told him that I was afraid of the people—of the church—of being criticized and bullied, of being harassed and hurt. I’d seen it far too much in my church growing up. I was afraid of what my life would be like if I took that step. It wasn’t that I didn’t have options—I was just afraid of the risk of following the direction in which God was inviting me. And my pastor said something that will always stick in my mind: “That’s not a good enough reason.”

He didn’t tell me that my fears would never happen. In fact, they have—and they will. But it’s not a good enough reason not to do what God chose me to do. God never forced God’s will on me. Instead, God continued to invite me deeper into my vocation until I came face to face with God’s desire for me and my future.

In the same way, I don’t believe God forced God’s will upon Mary. Mary had an option. She could have said no. That is why it was so important for the angel to begin with “Do not be afraid. God loves you.” What if Mary had said no? What if Mary had said, ‘enough?’ What if Mary hadn’t decided to sit down and stop clapping? The world would have continued on—in thunderous applause for tyranny while secretly hoping for a savior.

Instead, Mary said ‘yes.’ Mary took the risk. Mary stepped into the role designed with her in mind—her situation—her life—her context. Mary agreed to be vulnerable to God’s will so that God could be vulnerable to the whole world. In the back-woods town of Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem, the center of worship and life; to an unmarried young girl and her faithful fiancée, tired from their journey and unable to find room inside the homes of family in Bethlehem; into a world that would deny him, persecute him, and crucify him.

No, there is nothing impossible with God. But the miracle is not so much that Mary, a virgin, gave birth to God’s Son. The miracle is that Mary said yes when she could have said no. The miracle is that the disciples followed when they could have stayed where they were. The miracle is that the dead are raised, the wounded healed, the mourners comforted. The miracle is—as Mary sang to Elizabeth—the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, the rich not given more.

Given the world in which we live today, we can recognize just how miraculous this all really is. God did not use God’s power to get what God wanted. God invites. God encourages. God calls. God gathers. God gives us options. God gives us hope. God forgives every time we turn our backs—every time we say no. And God never gives up on us—continuing to invite us into life-giving relationship—not out of fear but out of love. When the world tells us never to be the first to sit down, God sits down first—paving the way to the salvation we are often too afraid to consider.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Getting Ready”–Sermon for First Sunday in Advent, December 3, 2017

Afraid11

(I’m using the second Advent Sunday’s Scriptures this week.)

Isaiah 40:1-11

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

 Children’s message:

So, what are you doing to get ready for Christmas? Buying presents? Decorating the house? Putting up the tree? Getting lights out? It doesn’t quite feel like Christmas when those things aren’t done. Can you think of other things that make Christmas feel like Christmas? Christmas carols, snow, lights around the neighborhoods, baking cookies.

Maybe some of you have a nativity set—a crèche? What all do you have in your set? Mary, Joseph, manger, animals, shepherds, wise men, camels, stars, stable. Hopefully someone mentioned Jesus.

So, you told me what you do to get ready to celebrate Christmas. What do you do to prepare for Jesus’ birth? It’s a little bit different question, isn’t it? Jesus’ birth doesn’t need lights or trees or ornaments. And Jesus’ birth doesn’t need presents under the tree or snow. And what about Santa Clause? Does Jesus’ birth need a Santa? No.

So, what can we do to prepare for Jesus? We can still sing songs. Some of our songs talk about making a place for Jesus in our hearts. Can we do that? How might that happen? Maybe, when we make a place for other people in our hearts, we are making a place for Jesus. And maybe, when we make a place for worship in our lives, we are making a place for Jesus. And maybe, when we make a place for the poor and hungry and forgotten in our community, we are making a place for Jesus.

So, I wonder if you know, now, how to prepare for Jesus. Let’s pray. Dear God, we thank you for all of the ways we get to celebrate the birth of Christ. Help us to prepare for him in our hearts as much as we prepare for him in our homes. Amen.

Message:

Every year, I get so annoyed with just how early Christmas is vomited onto the consumer scene. As soon as Halloween is over, Thanksgiving stuff goes on sale, and Christmas stuff is set out front and center. Some radio stations start playing Christmas music as early as November 1. And I always say, “We don’t even get to give thanks for what we have before we start wishing for something more.” Christmas makes me cranky.

It’s hard for me to get into the season. I’ll admit that getting our house decorated helps. And getting the church decorated. And I’m now starting to listen to my Christmas stations on Pandora—I still can’t stand the stuff on the radio. Snow certainly would add to the ambience—until I have to drive through it. But I guess the sheen of childhood innocence has worn off of my Christmas experience. It happens as one starts understanding more about the history and the background of Jesus’ birth—about the expectations and the reality of the culture at the time.

It’s difficult to think about joy and peace when you start to recognize the corruption that was happening in Israel, the injustices that led to exile, the dangerous leadership of Herod and Rome, and the reason Jesus’ birth was both so important and so volatile. It’s difficult to get wrapped up in wrapping presents when the world around us is so insistent on rewarding corruption, inflicting terror, ignoring pleas of injustice, and just keeping up appearances.

But maybe, as we mature and recognize the dissonance between what we know and what we used to know, we are better prepared to embrace the Jesus of Scripture rather than simply the Jesus of our childhood—the Jesus that doesn’t arrive in silent reverence but among the smells and noises of a used stable—the Jesus that isn’t wrapped in golden fleece but in the simple cotton rags of a peasant couple—the Jesus who was born to a scandalous relationship, hunted down by a tyrant king, and spent his free time with the unloved and untouchables—the Jesus who died quite inconspicuously alongside dozens of other traitors to the empire.

Maybe, as we grow in faith, we are better prepared to hear that our hope is in more than a promise to live with Jesus among the clouds, that moral lives will buy us favors from God, and that being comfortable in life is enough to satisfy the longing in our hearts. Maybe we’re ready to go deeper.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah basically deliver a message of God’s judgment over Israel. They were not faithful. Therefore, they are despised, abandoned, and exiled. But the beginning of chapter 40 shifts the tone. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. Comfort—not make comfortable but offer hope. Tell the people that God is on the way.

A voice says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Go into the wilderness and tell everyone you meet that God is on the way. Tell the farmers and the shepherds to choose the perfect lamb and the fatted calf for slaughter. Tell the millers to prepare the flour for the choicest breads. Tell the garment-makers to clothe the people fit for a feast. Tell the slaves of the household that the master is on his way—make ready the arrival of our God. God is on the way!

But not only that…on the way, God will prepare the way for the people. The valleys shall be lifted and the mountains brought down—the challenging path will be made passable and ready for a mass of people to make their journey home from exile. Oh…that is good news.

But, like me, the prophet isn’t sure the proclamation will do any good. A voice says, “Cry out!” And I say, “What shall I cry? People are fickle—they won’t listen, they won’t remember. They’ll just go back to doing what they always do. Israel will turn away again and give their hearts to idols. Christmas will be over, the decorations will come down, and everyone will forget.” But God responds, “Yes, the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.”

The Word of our God is faithful—even when we are not. The Word of God returns home—even when we have only made half-hearted attempts at preparation. The Word of God comes to us—even, and maybe especially, when our minds are elsewhere—on workplace parties and children’s programs and music ministry and building maintenance and show shoveling. The Word of God comes in the flesh—because our grieving and broken hearts can’t embrace such abiding love without being embraced by the very arms that hung on the cross as fulfillment of promises made long before.

Even as we make our preparations for family dinners and Christmas Eve services, the Word of God is preparing our hearts—making room in us for something we didn’t expect—the beauty of grace proclaimed in the ugliness of pride, greed, and power. Like a gentle shepherd, the Word of God will bring us to the pastures of mercy and righteousness.

So, maybe it’s okay that I don’t into the Christmas spirit like I used to. Maybe it’s okay that the preparations for Jesus’ birth don’t make me glow with anticipation and excitement. Because today, what I need from the promise delivered in a manger isn’t a promise of snow-topped roofs, glistening lights, and exciting presents. I need the promise that the ugliness and hardships of this world—which is no worse or better than the ugliness of 1st-Century Israel—will be met by the same faithful response that Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the wise men and the shepherds all received: The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE