Mary’s lesson…

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All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
Luke 2:18-20 NLT

Christmas has been celebrated well in my house this year. We have laughed and talked and eaten and shared. Gifts have been opened, Merry Christmases exchanged, relatives and friends spoken to on the phone or by email. I even got a nap in (which is one of my favourite things to do on any holiday!).

You might think that tomorrow it is back to business as usual. But I have learned a lesson from Mary. I learned it so many years ago, I cannot even remember when…it is one of those things that seems to have always been part of my understanding of Christmas. It is the reason that the words “but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often” are my very favourite Christmas scripture.

The lesson is this: Christmas, like Easter, is a defining moment in the Christian faith. It is not simply a fun holiday, or a season of the year or a great story. It defines our faith. It makes us – those of us who follow Jesus – what we are.

Like Mary, we are meant to keep these things in our hearts and think about them often. We are to remember that God became a man, that He moved into the neighborhood, that His message is for the poorest and the richest alike, that wise men seek Him still and that the very first King sized bed was a manger full of hay.

The fact that God took on flesh and blood, the fact that he became one of us, in the person of Jesus, who is the Christ, makes our faith unique.

We are meant to remember that. We are meant to carry it into all the days that come as 2012 ends and as 2013 begins. We are meant to allow it to shape us, to help us interpret reality, to call us to the work God has for us to do.

So Merry Christmas, my friends. Like Mary, may we all hold the lessons of this precious time of year in our hearts and think of them often.

Be blessed, and be a blessing.

So close…

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 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child.

Luke 2:16,17 NLT

We are so close now. So close to the celebration of Christmas. There are only two more sleeps, and it will be here. I hope you are able to enter into the excitement and joy that this celebration is meant to be. I hope you feel the wonder, the peace, the love.

The Shepherds certainly understood the celebration. They couldn’t stop talking about it. They went to see it with their own eyes, and then they told everyone they knew about what they had seen and heard.

May we do the same – may we encounter something so wonderful, so transformative this Christmas that we just have to share it with everyone.

Come and see!

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When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Luke 2:15 NLT

When our new Lead Minister joined St. Andrew’s this fall, he suggested “Come and See” as a first sermon series for us to tackle together. It was a great series. The big idea at the core of it was that God has always invited people to “come and see” what the Kingdom is all about, what our faith is all about.

This verse reminds us of that. The Shepherds are having a “come and see” moment – they have been told about what God has done for them, but God doesn’t leave them with just this heavenly message – as awesome as that was. God includes details in the message so that the Shepherds can check it out for themselves.

And the Shepherds take God up on the invitation. They go and they check it out with their own two eyes.

Where ever you may be spending Christmas Eve, I hope that you can “come and see” what the Lord has done for you. I hope that you have a place to worship where you can hear the story, sing the songs, and gather in community.

If you are in Brampton or the surrounding area, please “come and see” at St. Andrew’s. We have a number of services, and I hope one (or more!) will suit your needs:

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 44 Church St. E, Brampton


4pm – Family Interactive Service
: Carols and the story told in a way that the young (and the young-at-heart) can hear it and enjoy it.
7:30pm – Carols and Lessons: Our Leap of Faith band (mini-orchestra, really) and choir will present the music, the youth of our church will do the readings, the house will be packed and noisy, it’s a joyful celebration.
10pm – Candlelight Communion: a quiet, intimate service which includes communion. Come and worship.

Angel’s song…

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 Suddenly, the angel was joined
by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—
praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those
with whom God is pleased.”
Luke 2:13,14 NLT

 

These verses are so well-known to me, that it is easy to overlook them. To simply hear them as a part of the story, and not see the gold that is hidden in them. For there is gold here.

In this simple song of the angels is housed the ‘way it was all meant to be.’ Glory to God, they sing. Because God deserves the glory. Only God could come up with the plan for our salvation. Only God could send us Jesus. Only God could work a plan for humanity on so many levels – that Jesus would be our salvation…the one through whom we are made right with God; but also that he would also be God’s ultimate sign of love for us – He loved us enough to come here and live as one of us, so that we could never say “you don’t know what it is like”; and also that in the life and teachings of Jesus we would be given words of wisdom for how to live the good life, the abundant life; but also that through his Resurrection death would be defeated.

Yes, God deserves the glory. That is the way it is meant to be.

Peace on Earth is also the way it is meant to be. We are made for relationship with God and with each other. We are made to be at peace with each other. We are made to be at peace with the world around us. When we fail at peace (remember Shalom? – that is what I mean by peace), then brokenness occurs. When we don’t live holistically and sustainably within the world that God created for us, disease breaks out. When we don’t live holistically with our fellow man, violence breaks out. When we don’t live holistically with God, evil breaks out.

We need peace. We need not just an end to war or other violence, but an end to the way we exclude others, the way we poison our world, the way we try to fix things on our own and leave God out of the equation.

May the song of the Angels ring loud and clear this Christmas. May it remind us all of how it is meant to be. May each of us seek and find ways to give the glory to God and bring peace to the Earth.

Breath of Heaven…

It’s the end of a long day at the end of a long week, nearing the end of one of the busiest seasons of the church year. I’m tired.

So tonite, I am offering one of my favorite Christmas songs. I bought Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas when it first came out in 1992. It was the first Christmas album I’d ever bought and remains one of my favorites to this day. I was especially touched by the song “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Prayer)”, which speaks to the burden that any servant of God feels.

I hope this song is a blessing to you as it is to me, every time I hear it.

Emotional complications…

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With the tragic shootings a Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut have come a whole slew of different reactions. Some call for the banning of assault weapons, others wonder whether teachers should carry guns. Some find comfort in the thought of these children being united with Jesus in heaven, others cannot find any comfort at all. I read an article today that said this is not the time for dancing or celebrating anything. I certainly respect anyone who feels their grief too keenly to engage in any celebration at the moment, but I also know there are others who find that even in their sorrow there is cause for celebration…there are reasons to smile and laugh. Life never occurs in a vacuum, or in neat, compartmentalized boxes.

It’s kind of a mess, and things are mixed up together. At every funeral I have ever presided over, there has been laughter through the tears. And I believe that’s the way it is meant to be. A life lived fully is a life where conflicting emotions are experienced together. Where joy and sorrow meet. Where the cradle dwells in the shadow of the cross. Where defeat and victory are experienced in the same event. That’s what Jesus’ story is all about. We have a way of white-washing it, of making it all pretty and nice, but the mess always existed in the story.

Take the shepherds and the angels for example:

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12

Do you see that little phrase in the center of the passage? “They were terrified.” All heaven is breaking loose, with the best news ever, but the shepherds were terrified.

Because life is kind of messy, and you don’t expect all heaven to break loose in the midst of the night shift. Terror in the midst of joy. That is the mess of life. These things go together, and make the story more beautiful, in the end.

Not to give tomorrow’s passage away, but the shepherds will turn from terror into rejoicing. They will find their joy.

But for me, I’m glad to read that little phrase in the center of this passage. I am glad to know that I’m not the only one who knows what it means to feel more than one emotion at once. I’m glad to get to live this messy, confused, crazy life. And to know that it doesn’t always have to make sense.

Joy and sorrow can coexist within us, because God made us to be emotionally complex beings. I hope you can find some joy, even when sorrow seems to be all around. I hope, like the shepherds, though you may feel terror, you will not dwell there indefinitely. I hope you can hear the good news of great joy that is for all the people.

No vacancy….

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And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

Luke 2:6-7 NLT

Every time I read these verses, I am reminded of another Casting Crowns song entitled, While You Were Sleeping. These lyrics in particular:

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Looks like another silent night
Above your deep and dreamless sleep
A giant star lights up the sky
And while you’re lying in the dark
There shines an everlasting light
For the King has left His throne
And is sleeping in a manger tonight

Oh Bethlehem, what you have missed while you were sleeping
For God became a man
And stepped into your world today
Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King
While you were sleeping

It is amazing to me that God became a man, and most of the world didn’t notice. Heck, most of the town didn’t notice. And I am reminded of how easily we miss the things that God is up to in our midst.

My friends, let’s keep our eyes open. Let’s not miss what God is doing. Let’s not be so busy that there is no room in our midst for our King.

That is my prayer for all of us this Christmas.

A long journey…

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At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.

Luke 2:1-5 NLT

Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, because the powers that be had declared that everyone had to return to their home towns so that a census could be taken.

I can’t imagine what the journey must have been like. It certainly was nothing like the journey would be if you took it today. There were no highways, no buses, no roadside stops where you could buy food and drink. There were no hotels or showers or restaurants. Mary was obviously pregnant, which means she was also uncomfortable. All my friends who are Moms talk about that stage in their pregnancies as one where they were just ready to be done with it.

It must have been cold, and times frightening. I wonder where they stayed at night, what food they ate on the journey. It all looks so pretty on the Christmas cards we send, but the reality would have been quite different.

Isn’t that true of all of our Christmases, though? Often everything looks quite pretty – the family is dressed up, they gather at church together smiling at other families and friends. No one quite sees the cracks beneath the surface: the argument the siblings had on their way to the church service or the worry that the parents share over the bills that will come due in January. There is always more to the journey than meets the eye.

In Newtown, Connecticut, the first of the funerals for the children victimized in Friday’s shooting were held today. That town is on a journey of its own. Just holding the funerals is going to take quite a while, never mind all the time it will take for answers to be discovered or for healing to begin.

I am so thankful for a God who understands the journeys we face. I believe God was with Mary and Joseph on the road that they traveled to Bethlehem. I believe that God is with us on the roads we travel towards the celebration of Christmas. I believe God is present with the people of Newtown, as they journey from Friday’s tragedy to whatever the future will hold for them.

Whatever your journey looks like, may you know that God is with you on the road. May you know that Jesus took a long journey before he was even born, and continued to journey throughout his life. May these thoughts comfort you, and in finding comfort, may you pray for the comfort of others on the roads that they travel.

Sunday of Joy…

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I always appreciate being at church after a tragedy. Not that I ever want a tragedy to occur, but when they do, being in worship with my family of faith is a blessing. I remember my Dad preaching words of hope and comfort after 9/11, in those first few weeks when it still felt like maybe the world was ending. I remember how beautiful it was to sing and pray and read words of hope and of peace in that very troubling time.

On the one hand it was hard to be at worship today – my emotions over the Connecticut school shootings are still very close to the surface. On the other hand, I was so relieved and blessed to be there. For some it might have felt like it was ironic in a terrible, terrible way that today is the Advent Sunday of Joy.

But for me, it felt right. Not because I want to just smile and laugh and ignore the pain. But because I believe that joy is stronger than pain. That joy can be felt in the midst of pain. And that joy can help to heal our wounds.

So my smile was wobbly today in worship. My tissue was drenched by the end of the service, and my eyes and nose were red. But there were so many good things that happened in my community of faith today. We baptized a baby. We listened to our children sing and play the handbells. We laughed. We danced (does this mean our Presbyterian card will be revoked?!). We sang Go Tell It On The Mountain at the top of our voices and clapping broke out.

And God was with us. God was drawing us together. God was healing us. God was blessings us.

In the Gospel According to Matthew we find these words:

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’”

When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:22-25 NLT

Jesus came so that we would know that God is with us. On the good days, on the bad days, on the ordinary days. Jesus came so that we would know God cares and so that we would know what it is to experience the joy of being unconditionally loved.

So that we would have a joy inside us that shines in the midst of darkness, that smiles through the haze of tears, that sings and claps, even when our hearts are broken.

Trusting, even in the mess…

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The world is feeling kind of dark and messy right now. The shootings in Connecticut continue to be on most people’s minds. Our hearts are filled with sorrow for the loss of life, for the hurt that has been perpetrated against people who did not deserve it. There are no easy answers about this situation. There is no way to heal quickly.

But I keep thinking about what Matt Chandler said at the Catalyst conference this year: “God works in the mess.” Please hear me: I am not say that God caused this mess, or wanted it to happen. I do not believe that God has any part in the violent and horrible death of children.

But I also do not believe that God is simply absent when things get ugly in our world. I believe God is present. I believe that God works in the mess.

I believe this because of the way that Jesus was born. It was…kind of a mess! Mary is unexpectedly pregnant and Joseph wants to break the engagement (because even those days, when your fiance becomes pregnant before you’ve slept with her, “Hey, it must have been the Holy Spirit!” is never your first thought).

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.

As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:18-21 NLT

Joseph could have taken the easy way out. And I bet, even after the Angel came to him in a dream, there were times he wished he had. But instead, he chose to trust God. Even in the midst of this messy, socially awkward situation, he chose to trust God.

And he got to help raise up the savior of the world.

It’s not always easy to put our trust in God. Especially when everything seems like a total mess. But I think when we fail to do that – we miss out. We miss out on what God has planned, and His plans are always better than we could dream.