The True Work of Christmas

This is a transcript from the December 30, 2018 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

This morning I want to talk a little bit about the real work of Christmas. For many of us, the real work of Christmas, what that conjures up is all the preparation. You have to get the boxes out, you have to put the lights up, you have to get the tree, you have to decorate it, you have to buy the presents, all the preparation. For some of you when I say the work of Christmas, you're thinking, "I've got to take the tree down, I've got to put it back in a box, I got to get the lights down," and some of you have already started doing that. 

The reason we haven't at New Hope is, it's pretty close to Christmas and boy that's just a lot of work and who wants to do it? Both of those are part of the work of Christmas, but I believe that the real work of Christmas is something that is far deeper and far more important, and it has to do with a phrase:

They left for their own country by another road.

They had to go back and because of what they experienced, because of what they saw, because of how they felt nudged or directed, they had to make a change. I believe that the real work of Christmas has to do with change.

If you can come to Christmas, go back home, and not be changed, then you haven't done the work of Christmas. If Christmas is one of those things that you can get out of a box, put it back in a box, put it back on a shelf, and get ready for next year, then the work of Christmas is yet to be done. Because the work of Christmas is all about change. It is meant to change us.

Can you imagine if these wise men decide not to go home by another way because they decide, "This has got nothing to do with us, this isn't our fight. This isn't our argument. We're going to go home and just as we had planned, we will stop by as we've been instructed." Can you imagine what might have happened if they had chosen to do that just because they decided it's got nothing to do with me? Can you imagine if they go home and they act as if nothing happened? They go back to their community, their family, their friends and, "What did you see?" It's like, "It was nice. It's done. What's next?"

Can you imagine if it doesn't inform the way they live, the way they view God, the way they pray, the way they look and to see what God is up to in this world? Can you imagine them going back as if nothing had happened? As unthinkable as that is, why then does that happen so often to us? Why do we get to go back, and so often then a month from now, we will live as if Christmas had never come? We will live as if it had just been another day on the calendar, a great one, a lot of fun, and now it's back on the shelf. That only happens if we don't do the real work of Christmas.

For the wise men, Mary and Joseph, there were messages that came from unlikely places, in a dream. The message themselves came from the wise men who were of a different religion, ethnicity, a different race, different culture, different language. They were completely different. They were the most unreliable of messengers, and yet, they brought a message and it changed things. They got a message from a land that wasn't their own, from a people that weren't their own, from a different God than their own, and yet, something happened and it changed them.

Sometimes we don't change or we don't respond because we're not attuned to the ways that God wants to speak. We think we know how God speaks, we expect God to speak that way, we already know ahead of time what God's going to tell us. Anything that doesn't come that way, we tend to dismiss it. 

Change is part of the good news. Christ has come, everything is different, so change. Maybe one way to do that today, by the way, one simple way is you go home by a different way, take a route, road home that you normally don't do. Just for the sake of being different, just for the sake of a different scenery and a different way of feeling, but I hope it's much deeper. "What is the message in my life?" Maybe it is coming from an unlikely place. Maybe it is coming out of the pain of your life.

My first boss said this wonderful statement, he said, "Don't waste the pain, it's telling you something. It is a messenger of what's not working." Maybe it is coming from the constant voices of friends and family. Maybe it is coming from a nudge that something needs to change. Before we dismiss it because it doesn't come from the right place or say the thing we were hoping it would say, let's take a few moments to listen, and let's make sure that we listen in all the different ways that God comes.

I want to introduce you to Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman is the one who wrote The Work of Christmas from which has been a constant source of encouragement and provocation for me. He was a mystic, he was a prophet, he was a person who somehow took both contemplation and action, and embodied them together in powerful ways. When we do Oasis, our event around some contemplative prayer, we often use his words in his poem called How Good to Center Down.

He wrote that 40 years ago, How Good to Center Down, and just talks about what it means to come down and to find that quiet still place because it's out of that, that action comes. He was an activist. He was the first African-American chaplain when he was named that at Boston University in the late '50s, the first African-American chaplain at a majority white school in the country. He also wrote a number of books including Jesus and the Disinherited, which was a source of inspiration for many people including Martin Luther King.

It is said that he always had a copy of that with him, always in his pocket, always with him wherever he went. It was that kind of a wellspring of inspiration and guidance for him. I knew about Howard Thurman because in youth group we sang songs like, I Am the light of the world, you people come and follow me. If you follow in love, you'll learn the mystery of what it is you were meant to do and be. Then you would sing some of the words of The Work of Christmas. I would sing those words long before I knew who Howard Thurman was. It was only about 30 years ago that I started a lifelong intrigue with this man and who he was.

This morning, I thought it would be good to read the words:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins. To find the lost, to heal the broken. To feed the hungry. To release the prisoner. To rebuild the nations. To bring peace among people.

To make music in the heart.

This is The Work of Christmas, this is what it means to go home by another way. This is what it means to engage in the work not only on the inside but also on the outside. The changes that God is looking for in us aren't meant to stay here, it is meant to be of changed to people who will go out and change the world. That was the message of Jesus everywhere he went. I think Jesus had some of the same problems that we do, and it was epitomized in some ways by an article I read, and you may have heard about it on the news or read about it as well.

This was, in fact, the headline when it says, How to Keep Baby Jesus in the Manger? Bolts, Cameras and Tethers.

There is a trend that has been going on the last couple of years of nativity scenes that have been raided, have been vandalized, and they keep taking baby Jesus. Quite disturbed, people have started to bolt baby Jesus to the manger, they put Jesus on a tether. They have Jesus cams to try to deter people, and nonetheless, it still keeps happening.

There is a part that is disturbing, and of course, as you go through and different people talking about what a terrible thing this is and how it shows a disrespect for religion and people aren't living by the gospel anymore. All of that is I'm sure true, and by no means, would I ever endorse vandalism, but I kept thinking to myself, "Isn't that what God has been trying to do for a long time, is get Jesus out of the manger? Isn't what we keep trying to do is keep Jesus there because Jesus in the manger is manageable? Jesus is a cute baby, Jesus is adorable there. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could just keep gathering around this adorable child?"

It seems to me that God keeps trying to get Jesus out of the manger and into the world. Isn't that part of the message of Christmas? Christmas has happened, don't just stay there and now go home by a different way. Mary and Joseph, you got to leave. Something has happened. It's going to mean a change in your life. Disciples, it's going to mean you have to drop everything you know if you're going to follow. Paul, it's going to mean your whole life turns upside down. It means there are changes that are afoot that are much less manageable and much more likely that for us to default and say, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could just keep Jesus in the manger?"

I wonder what would happen if in fact what churches did was they decided they had a sign, "Free Jesuses, take them home with you." Wouldn't it be great - "Do you want Jesus? Here you take him--" Wouldn't that be an amazing thing? Then what are you going to do with baby Jesus now that you got him? We kind of do that, and that's what today is about. Because one of the ways that we symbolize Jesus who's come into the world is with candles.

On Christmas Eve, if you were here for several of our services, the six, eight, and 11, people got candles. These are the very candles by the way, and they're burned. We would light these candles, we'll sing silent night, and then we blow them out and we go home. This week sometime we're going to take all these candles, we're going to put them in a box, and put them away until next year.

What I want to challenge us today, is what happens if we were to take this light home with us? I got a project for you. I'm going to challenge you on your way out to take a crystal-like plastic cup, a candle with a holder, and then you can put it where you will see it. Put it on your table for your family. Once a day, maybe in the morning, put it on a nightstand or where you do some quiet reading. Just what does it mean for Jesus to have come and where is Jesus nudging you to go? What are the changes? What are the places in your life now?

I'm going to invite you to do more. I put some sparkly things in mine. Maybe you want to for the next week, take some of the remembrances of Christmas and the celebration of New Year, and this is just part of the celebration. That you want to take that with you as part of your celebration.

Maybe you wanted to put something colorful in there because that's colorful. I have a whole thing that we've done in the past with marbles, and every time there was something for which I was grateful, you put a marble in. If what you are trying to do in this new year is to be more grateful, put those marbles or something that will remind you, so that as you light this candle, what it means to take Jesus and not leave Jesus in the manger, but to take him into 2019 is to be reminded, "That's right, I need to be more grateful."

Maybe you want to just do something simple like take the dirt from your house. This is where you're going to live. This is where you are grounded and you can do that. By the way, this is also sand, and what I was trying to get to was maybe your resolutions this year had something to do with time, the sands of time, and you could do that. You could take your new Apple iwatch and stick it in there. That's really up to you, you do you.

Maybe you want to take some loose change and put it in there, maybe your resolution has something this year to do with money, generosity, and or saving. Maybe it is a reminder of what it means to go out to feed the hungry and care for the poor. What would you put in your cup?

You might just want to put in water. For all the different things, maybe it's that cup of cold water is a way of symbolizing that. Maybe put in nothing at all and it's just air because it's your way of symbolizing, "I am open to whatever God is going to lead." What it means for you is to just be open, to take Christ into 2019, and keep him out of the manger is to take him that way, and just be open to wherever God is leading.

I was intrigued by popcorn. The one I'm going to have, I'm going to put my cup and I've got it on my desk already with popcorn because you know what happens when fire and popcorn get together? It's kind of a cool metaphor. It's like when Christ comes in contact, all kinds of explosive things can happen. What might happen if I let Christ into the plain ordinary stuff of my life? What will happen if you let Christ into plain ordinary stuff of your life? That's the challenge.

That's who we are and that's what this is about. I'm going to invite you to take one of these.

The point is this, Christmas has come. Before we put everything away, before we put things back in boxes, what has changed? What are the changes that God is wanting to make? Where is Christ going to lead us? How will we respond? How will we take Jesus out of the manger and bring Christ into our world? Because that is the true work of Christmas, that is why we have come.