Sermon for November 29, 2020 first Sunday of Advent

Worship Fully

Luke 2:8-20

 

    We are going to wander off the lectionary a bit this Advent Season as I invite you to join the Advent Conspiracy. It’s a fun name, but the idea comes from a few pastors around 15 years ago who wanted to call people back to consider and live out the spiritual meaning of the Christmas season. Sometimes it seems that the real reason for the season sometimes gets lost in the Christmas decorations and secular sentimentality. As we approach another Christmas holiday, what gift do you think God would wish for you to take away from this time and season we are passing through? What gift would God want us to give one another? Dare we turn ever so against the push of the commercial holiday to embrace the spiritual truth of a baby born into our world who is Emmanuel, “God with us”?

    The Advent Conspiracy calls us to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. Through these four central ideas, we seek to focus on the presence of God within the season. It is not that we cannot enjoy a Christmas cookie or watch a Hallmark Show, but it is a matter of intentionally refocusing on habits that we might find and experience the presence of God within life more fully. It is possible to get through Christmas without thinking about God. This is doing the opposite.

    As we anticipate the distribution of a vaccine to fight this pandemic, I see many people crowding into airports and traveling this holiday season. I wonder why they choose not to be patient. In the news I saw a story of one family that gathered together, and it resulted in 15 of them becoming ill. So infectious is the Covid19 virus. When people are compelled to gather, I wonder what they are looking for. Could it be that the greater answer to the fulfillment of the holiday season lies in past with a baby born and laid in a manger? Perhaps in that moment of Jesus Birth, is the hope and patience we need for the lock downs we face and for the illnesses we struggle with.

    To this point first, we are called to worship fully! Out of our everyday lives God wants us to realize that we are not alone. It was the shepherds who first received this good word. Not everyday is a common day and not every uncommon day is repeated, because it does not need to be. God’s revelation and word is as good today as it was then. What we learn from the story of the shepherd’s uncommon day still is true.

    The shepherds were out in the night’s landscape watching over one of the many flocks of sheep. I cannot really say I know what the job would have been like, but my guess is that they would have had the sheep penned up for the night in some manner. It was probably like camping out in tents except on a full-time basis. The smoke from a fire probably flavored everything a person touched and wore. There were not really any showers, but probably the stars at night were magnificent. In our time we talk about dark sky sanctuaries just so we can see the stars. The shepherd’s life was nothing but the darkest night’s sky and the brightest stars.     I imagine that they often looked up into the night’s sky and pondered the meaning of life and the nature of God. Are we not always drawn to so wonder when we view the expanse of creation and the universe? But this night was not a common night.

    In this darkness an angel appeared to them and the glory of the God shown around them. They were circled with a heavenly light, and the angel spoke to of “Good news of a great joy to all the people.” The messiah is born! There in Bethlehem! A baby in a manager! Wow! Did they wonder why of all people the angel was coming to them? And then suddenly a heavenly host appeared praising God. This angel was not traveling alone, and then they all vanished.

    This was not a common night, and the shepherds did what anyone would have done. They went to see this baby of which the angel had told them. No one would have ignored this amazing event. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they found everything just as they had been told.

    Now I love the way this story ends. Verse 20 says, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” The expression of this extraordinary moment was one of worship. When they found the Christ, they glorified and praised God! This is the first thing that Christmas really brings. If you really want to be in the Christmas Spirit then you may start by entering fully into moments of worship and praise for the God who came to visit us in the dead of night and enlightened our world.

    There are a lot of ways we prepare ourselves for Christmas and there is always someone who is going to ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” This usually has a lot to do with the time we spend putting up decorations and baking treats. It seems to have a lot to do with the gifts we buy for one another. It is a question about your plans for travel and who you are going to be with. Maybe in the past it was about going someplace special or going to that big Christmas Concert with the packed auditorium. Are you ready for Christmas? What are your plans? I get it, and I want to enjoy life and family as much as everyone, but what if we also decide each day to spent a moment in some manner giving God the glory and the praise for entering into out lives; especially during a time when the darkness seemed so all encompassing?

    As we consider our present situation, it may be a lot more difficult to be ready for Christmas. How much of a point is there to planning a gathering when we know there still is a risk to the health of those we love? How much of our Thanksgiving and Christmas season is going to be impeded by the pandemic? Maybe a substantial amount, but how much will it cost us to offer God our praise and worship because we now know that God is indeed with us! Do we really have to be in the same room to thank God with one heart for the blessings of life and spirit? I say no. If we can’t be in church today, then let us celebrate church every day. If you can’t visit one anther today, then let us pray for one another every day. Take the burden of this pandemic and turn it into a blessing. Take the moments that you otherwise may have spent on the trappings of Christmas and seek an action motivated by your faith in God.

    The Shepherds heard of God’s actions in the world and they didn’t sit still they went and saw and returned praising God. God is still at work in our world revealing his presence and delivering his grace. Maybe all we need to do is pray and ask God where we need to turn our attention to see God’s work. Instead of having heavy of a heart, and feeling anxious for the day, can we open ourselves even now to seeing God’s presence in small and big ways and returning our praise back to God? Perhaps these uncommon moments of disruption in our lives are the avenue for turning to God more fully during this Christmas season.

    A group that is always doing surveys of religious faith reports that “One-quarter of U.S. adults overall (24%) say their faith has become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic, while just 2% say their faith has become weaker. The majority say their faith hasn’t changed much (47%) or that the question isn’t applicable because they were not religious to begin with (26%). Interestingly, Americans in historically black Protestant churches and those who describe themselves as very religious are particularly likely to say their faith has strengthened.” (https://www.pewresearch.org)

    To me this is notable. Bishop Bard mentioned that there was a clergy death in our conference due to COVID, but he didn’t say who. (Pastor Betty Kay Leitelt of Otisville United Methodist Church passed away from COVID-19 on Oct. 28) So, I google something like Michigan Clergy death, and what came up first was three or four ministers who were black. I believe that this virus has hit the black community harder than some others, and at the same time some of these communities are professing a deeper faith in God. Perhaps those who are being hurt the most are also finding the greatest reason to draw closer to the source of their hope and comfort. I can understand that.

 

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2  through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

 

    Those who grasp faith more firmly even in the midst of loss are not grasping at straws but the certainty of glory, and there is glory because Jesus was born. Therefore, even in suffering we have reason to praise and worship God. But I tell you it does not need to be pain and hardship that leads us to worship. These are but the realities of life sometimes, but God is as real in the days of joy and triumph. Mary gave birth to a baby boy. A child born does not come without effort, but it is a moment of joy and celebration. It is not a moment of sorrow, but the mystery of life put within our world and lives. It God creating life new again. For Mary this was also a time to deeply ponder the wonders of the God she served. Mary also offered up her praise and worship for what God was doing.

    As we consider this holiday season whether it be in the midst of revelation and angels, mystery and wonder, or even in loss, may we cultivate even with our days the moments to turn to God and offer up our praise and worship. For yes good news of great joy has been given and the angels do praise, Jesus is born. The darkness of our world has been shattered by the hope of God’s glory given to us. We are not alone, but we are visited. Let us worship fully. For in these moments we shall truly make ourselves ready of Christmas. Amen

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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