The Candles of 2020

This is a transcript from the December 29, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

On this service, we don't dismiss the children to Sunday school. This is one of those services, we like to just make it as intergenerational as we can. Now everybody's got some packets. If you are a kid, hopefully, you got a packet in here for some activities. Right now, I'm hoping that you will help me out. Because I want to ask a couple of questions about what's wrong with this picture. I'm going to pose a couple of scenarios and you tell me what's wrong regardless of your age, but I would like you to just imagine what's wrong with this picture.

I want you to imagine that there's a football game that's going to happen. For days before, people are getting excited about it, and they talk about it and then the tailgate party starts sometimes two and three days ahead of time. Certainly, the day of people are there and they are gathered, and there's this amazing pregame show that's going on. They drop skydivers out of the sky and they have this big giant flag that covers the field. Military Honor Guard is there and we sing the Star-Spangled Banner. There's this incredible singer who's helping to lead everybody. Then everybody is announced, and one by one, and then everybody claps and cheers, and everybody's at a fevered pitch.

Then it comes time for the kickoff after they flip the coin, and they've decided who's going to receive and who's going to kick, who's going to be on what side of the field, and who's going to be on the other. It's time for the kickoff, and everybody is standing and everybody's rousing up, and they kick it off, and the person catches it and everybody goes home.

What's wrong with this picture? Now, I'm going to stop there because I thought, this is a year I better not just stay there because somebody's going to say, “Well, that's kind of what actually happens in some times," but I didn't want to get into that. Let me give another scenario. Maybe this will be a little closer, I want you to imagine it's the first day of school. It's coming up and everybody's excited about it.

Everybody gets their schedule and everybody gets their books ahead of time and everybody goes to the store and gets the stationery and all that long list of things that you're supposed to bring on the first day and you've got your pencils in there sharpened, and you've got your markers, and you've got school clothes because kids get new school clothes and everybody's wearing their new school clothes. Teachers have been preparing for weeks and weeks and they've been decorating their room and there have been meetings with teachers and parents.

Then the people who drive the buses have been practicing and they've got their routes all right, and everybody is ready to go. Then now it's time for the first day of school and everybody comes and then they go, “Well, let's go home.” What's wrong with this picture? While you're thinking about that, what's wrong with this picture?

We are celebrating the new era that Christ is inaugurating and it begins with his birth. We are excited about this, every year we're excited about it. Even though it's in December, some of us are getting ready and starting to do things in September or August. Some of us are even starting to listen to Christmas music in July, you know who you are. You've ordered and you've got cards, and the dinners have been planned and we spend lavish amounts of money on gifts and trees and lights, and then there's dinners and there's baking, and we come and we gather right on the eve of Christ's birth.

We fill this place up three, four times, and we light candles, and then it's Christmas day and we put it all away.

One, it sounds normal because that's what we do every Christmas. I'm going to contend that it's just as absurd as the first two scenarios, that somehow we have taken and made so much out of the starting line that we have made it the finish line, as if the whole point from August, September, October, November, and December is to somehow get to Christmas Day.

Then once it's done, let's put that away and let's get on with it. That doesn't make any more sense than everybody going home after the kickoff of a football game, or everybody getting ready for the first day of school and then when it comes, everyone's so exhausted by the preparation that they said, well let's just finish it we’ll come back next year. Christmas is meant to be the starting line. We have made it the finish line. It is easy to fill a sanctuary on Christmas Eve. We did it several times. On the Sunday after Christmas, it looks kind of like this.

Congratulations, by the way, you're here. You've noticed, you don't have to sit economy class, you get to sit business class on a day like today. You could spread out, there's plenty of room. We have confused the starting line of what Christ came to do, and who Christ came to be. How we respond, we have confused the starting line and made it the finish line, as if it's done. Much to the detriment of our own faith, much to the detriment of the needs of the world. That's what's wrong with this picture. We stop too soon.

What's right with this picture that we've got and we've read it in two different ways. We've read it the Luke passage that we always read on Christmas Eve and we read the John passage. Both of them get to this sense of mystery, and both of them, point to some things that at the very beginning, are the seeds of the gospel. What's present in that first manger, what's present in that first scene of Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day is present in the ministry of Jesus. You can see it, you can draw a line to it, and then you can draw it to the early disciples and you can draw it to us. If we understand that it's the starting line and not the finish line, then we get to participate in it and the seeds that have been sown on Christmas Eve, are there for us.

The incarnation, where God becomes human, one human is so drenched in divinity. That as John says, “No one's seen God but if you've seen Jesus, the Son shows us who God is.” Really right at the beginning. At the beginning, there it is that humanity is taken on and God is in the humanity of Christ, and it's one and the same. It's revealing something to us that humanity is good. Being physical, it's good, the material is good stuff and Christ came for that not to reject it but to make it holy.

You see that Jesus, that so much as God, identified with humanity, when He's able to say, “Listen, whatever you have done to the poor, and the hungry and the prisoner, and the lame, you've done or not done it, to me,” it's right there. It's a straight line from the incarnation to Jesus's teaching, to the teachings of the early church, and then to us.

The question is where do we see Christ embodied in front of us? If all we see is back there in the manger scene, if all we see is back there 2,000 years ago, we have missed the point, we have confused the finish line with the starting line. Where do we see Christ in the person who's on the edges, who's been rejected? Where do we ignore Christ in our midst? When we begin to see Christ there, we are beginning to understand that Christmas is just the starting line.

Likewise, that great paradox of how does God become human, and in so doing, becomes the lowest. There's a fancy, schmancy theological word called kenosis, it's emptying and it is God emptying for the sake of humanity and coming as it says later, as a human and in the lowest form.

Here on the backside of a desert to a poor peasant family, that's where God resides. Empties self out, the paradox of that stunned the early church. Augustine was one of those people who wrote these glorious poems about Christmas. He would talk about how did man's maker become human, become man himself? How did the one who began all the stars is now nursing at his mother's breast? How did that happen? That's kenosis, that's giving ourselves away.

Then it's Jesus saying, “Listen, if you want to follow me, give up your life. The one who loses their life, who pours it out, for my sake will find it.” There's a straight line between the manger and Jesus, there's a straight line between that and Paul saying, “Listen, have the same mind among you, which is yours in Christ,” in Philippians 2. 

Now, where do you empty yourself out? Where do we respond with our pride? Where do we respond with who we are and trying to keep ourselves safe? Where do we pour ourselves out and allow ourselves to be servants and servants to all? When we do that, we have made Christmas the starting line, not the finish line. We start to understand what Christmas and the power of Christmas is. When there are outsiders, in the form of shepherds, and the wise men, the Magi from the east who are the pagans and the shepherds who are on the outset society, they're the ones who get to hear the message. Jesus is always coming to the people who are on the outside: the sinner, the tax collector, and all the others, the sick people.

It is a straight line between that and what Jesus is doing. There's a straight line between that and who we are when we care for those who are the least and those who are on the outside, and we go out of our way to make sure that those people who are normally excluded are included. We see that Jesus is a threat to the powers that be. Some of the words that we use, and even around here, Son of God, Prince of Peace, the Mighty God, these are all words, Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the Son of Light.

These are all words that we are familiar with, but we forget if unless we go back and read in context, that these are the part of the birth announcement of Caesar Augustus when he was born, this was part of the birth announcement that he was the son of God, and he was the Prince of Peace, and he was the Everlasting, and he was the hope of the world.

When the Bible is using those words, it is saying in the midst of powers that push people to take census and have to run from the powers that are going to slaughter the innocence because it's a threat to their power, that that is at the core of the gospel message. When Jesus is coming, and finally, he's on the cross because of how he came across the powers of the temple authorities and the Roman Government, there is a direct line between Jesus's birth and the life and the gospel of Jesus. When we stand and refuse to be engulfed by and owned by the nationalism, the party politics, and all of that, as if that's the biggest part of who we are, then we stand with Christ because we transcend all of that and our real allegiance, and it is still a threat, it is still a threat to this day.

The people who miss the message are the ones who are trying to hang on to authority. The ones who missed the message in Jesus's day were the ones who hung on to authority and power. The ones who missed the message today are the ones who are more interested in maintaining power and authority. There's a direct line. There is a direct line.

When we are told that Jesus coming into the world is the beginning. It's the full expression of the reign of God that a new era has been inaugurated. When Jesus comes into and the first words he says, "Repent and believe, the kingdom of heaven is here." It's in your midst. It's right before you change the way you live. When we allow that to sink into our life and know that that means a change of heart, a change of perspective.

When we realize that Christmas is not just something that we put away, but that it is meant to be something that calls out the best in us, then we understand what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in the '30s when he was musing and reflecting on Christmas, who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, and all individualism beside the manger. That's as it was in the first scene, the seeds are bitter there, it continues through the life, the teachings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus and it continues today when we get that, then Christmas takes its rightful place. It's not the finish line. It's a just the starting line, and the opening gun and the first day of a new era.

The Candles of 2020 - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

It calls us to offer ourselves and to be amazed. On this day, we go back and we are amazed again to let it sink into the marrow of our soul of what's gone on. Mary, did you know; people, do we know? We express that in so many ways, including in song.

We're going to do something a little different. We do this once in a while, we just took an offering where people pass the plate and you put something in it. If you're putting something tangible in it or symbolically of yourself and then we can gather it up as part of our offering to God. We're going to do the same thing. We're going to pass another set of baskets, but this time, your job is to take something out specifically, your job is to take out one of these candles and have that in your hand.

You're going to be able to keep this if you choose. If you don't, you can drop it off, but for right now, I'm going to ask that everybody here, make sure that in the next few moments, everybody has a candle. If our greeters and ushers will pass these down, and we'll just take a moment to gather these up. Everybody should have a candle that has been lit previously.

One of the traditional things for me at least has been over the years to not only sing Christmas carols and to just revel still in Christmas in the basket from the Christmas past, but then also to lean ahead and one of the readings that I always find meaningful is by a man named Howard Thurman. He wrote this wonderful poem called the work of Christmas. We're going to get to have that as part of the way we close our worship service this day.

I just want you to observe this and go, boy, this is a cheap gift for us, not even a candlelight, a used candle. Perfect. It's not a used candle in that sense. In that sense, this morning what I want to suggest is this candle is not unlike us. This is a candle that has experienced flame. This is a candle that has experienced light. This is a candle that has been made one with that light and now it's wondering, what do we do with this now? What do we do with this now? As we are thinking about that, because as we get ready, and we go through Christmas, and all the best of who we are, and people lean into the holidays, and they give generously of their time, and their money, and their talents and now it's the first of the year coming up and now what do we do with this?

We can just put this away. We'll put this away with a lot of it, but I'm going to invite you to keep this with you and keep it somewhere where you can see it and not just for the next couple days, but I'm going to ask that you keep this until that day, May 31st, 2020. Holy cow, that's a long time away. Actually, starting next week, it's 22 weeks away, I counted. It is also the day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the day when that question of what do I do with this now becomes apparent, at least in the Gospel. The Gospel story, which begins with Jesus's birth, and goes through this life, his death, his resurrection, the post-resurrection appearances and then the coming of the Holy Spirit and once again, flame shows up.

The Candles of 2020 - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

Flame shows up not just as the singular light that lights the world, but now it belongs to all those who are followers and the flame, the Holy Spirit as if a tongue of flame is over everyone. I want to ask to keep this in front of you for the next 31 days, until May 31, for the next 22 weeks, because I'm going to ask this question. This is the question that's going to be in front of us, for the first part of this year, what in the world is God up to and what does it have to do with me?

The Candles of 2020 - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

I think they're both terribly important questions. What in the world is God up to, it has a lot to do with why we show up. It has a lot to do with where our hope is. It has a lot to do with what we give ourselves to and the why. Then the second question, what does it have to do with me because it's one thing to just give ourself in a sense to, well, God came into the world. I believe in Jesus, I believe that God came, but what does it have to do with me? What does it have to do with my life? What does it have to do with someone who has experienced, and been close to and been part and joined with Christ and Christ's love? Now, what do I do with that. That's what I want you to keep this with you and I want you to keep it in front of you, maybe on a dresser, on a table, somewhere where you will see it and be reminded that that's the question.

What is God up to? What does that have to do with me? In our scripture, it talks about that those who saw the light, who believed it says, God gave the power to become the children of God. Let's just start there. That part of what all this has to do with us is that we are being invited to become the children of God. Now, I know there's a whole part of our theology that says, we already are the children of God, we've already been given that, but this is saying that we get to grow into it.

The power is there and we get to have the power to become the children of God. That has something to do with who we are and it has something to do with how we will respond and where we will go from here. The light has come into the world, and the darkness did not overcome it. That was our verse for this last month. Perhaps you were able to memorize it, it's going to be important because it also says that not only did the light come into this world, the darkness did not overcome it. It also says, by the way, that doesn't mean the darkness was banished. That doesn't mean that there is no more darkness, that there is darkness throughout.

Jordan just recounted a couple of those instances that are part of the headlines almost every day and how heartbreaking that in the feast of lights of Hanukkah, that there's stabbings and there's violence, and it's anti semitism, and it's terrorism, and it's played out on one headline of one day and it comes up, darkness shows up on another headline of another day. It shows up in the opioid epidemic, it shows up in the vast poverty, it shows up in the cruelty, it shows up in all the ways that people are pushed aside, objectified, made less than human. It's waiting for people who become the children of God who get to bear that image, you get to bear that message, who get to be the presence.

The answer to this question is not just for ourselves, it's for the entire world if I could be so bold as to suggest that. That, part of what God is doing and part of the work of Christmas is to take on and to take seriously to, as one person said, to implement what God has inaugurated in Christ.

Now, we implement that for our day in the year 2020. What will that mean? What in the world is God up to and what does it have to do with me, is an incredibly vital question. It begins with taking seriously that Jesus came, not to conclude what God was doing, but to begin.

That we take this and we recognize that even as we do on Christmas Eve and any other time, that if we want to experience God, it's not something that we create. There is a flame that is already there that we didn't create. All we do is we bring ourselves close enough to it, and continue to bring ourselves close enough to it, that we might catch it and catch it again. Because let's face it, it is easy to have that blown out, it is easy to have that extinguished. It is easy to be overwhelmed by darkness. We come again and again, and we draw close. We draw close in worship, we draw close with one another. I really believe that's part of why we exist, and part of why the world needs places like this.

Communities of light, communities that somehow stand against darkness. It doesn't mean we're victorious every time. Just the opposite. It means we often come in extinguished, we often come in despairing, we often come in with nothing to offer. It is the coming together again and drawing close again and reigniting ourselves again, that we stand against despair. We stand against cynicism, we become the living light, we become the living testimony, we become the children of God, who somehow are able to bear witness of what God is still doing.

Then as we take this light, the other part, of course, is to take it into all the places that we go that are dark or gray or shaded or whatever that is, and we bring that light close enough to others. We don't stand off as if that somehow people with problems are going to infect us, we don't stand off and say somehow that's going to somehow be contagious to me. We don't stand off because we don't want to have anything to do with it. No, we do exactly what God did, which is come in and come to the lowest places and come to the most godforsaken places and come to the places that were darkest. We come and we take this light and we bring it close to others who need it enough so that they might catch it as well.

We don't do this with hubris as if we're the only ones who have light as if we are the saviors, we are not, we just bear witness to what we have received. What we were given that's not ours to begin with, and we give it away because it is meant for the world. We become this, that is waiting to be lit. I began, Advent, by saying and I will repeat at the end, now that we're on the other side of Christmas, of all the candles that you light, this Advent, this December, the most important candle is you. You. Because it is from here, it is you who will bring this, that will give hope, that will bring love, that will bring peace and joy to our community. You. As we gather together, as we become, as we reignite as we gather and share, as we give away, we begin to get to do the great work of Christmas.