31 December 2017

A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 31, 2017

First Lesson:  Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

The history of the ancient people of Israel seems to follow a cycle of disaster and heartbreak, followed by redemption by God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.  There was a famine in their land and people were starving; but Joseph had reached a position of power under the Pharaoh and he was able to bring his family to Egypt where there was food to eat.  The people ended up in slavery in Egypt; but then God acted through Moses to bring the people out of slavery in to freedom.  The people wandered in the desert for 40 years; but God was always present with them, guiding them, and eventually they arrived in the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.  Many generations later, this land was taken over by the Babylonian empire, the temple which was the home of God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy was destroyed, and the people were taken into exile in Babylon; but then the Babylonian empire fell, and the people were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

Throughout all generations, their hope was sustained by remembering that God had always been faithful to them in the past, and could therefore be depended on to be faithful to them in the future.  Even when they lamented what had happened to them, and even when they were angry at God for allowing terrible things to happen to them – and believe me, you just have to read the Psalms to get a sense of the depth of their pain and grief and anger – even through all of that, they knew that God was with them and could still hear them when they were crying out.

The last part of the book of Isaiah was written just after the people had returned from exile in Babylon.  Isaiah uses the language of shoots coming up in the garden in the springtime.  Even when the ground looks bare and desolate, new life always appears; and even when our lives look bare and desolate, new life is coming.  God has been faithful in the past, and will be faithful until time has ended.  Thanks be to God!

Hymn:  Joy to the World!

Second Lesson:  Luke 2:1-7

If we were to just read this passage and not know any of the history of what came before and what comes after, it is a very ordinary story.  A young couple are compelled by circumstances beyond their control to travel far from their home – they had to travel approximately 80 miles, or 130 kilometers.  The young woman is pregnant, and while they are there in that strange city, her first child is born.  She wraps him in bands of cloth – a receiving blanket – and lies him in a warm and quiet place.

If we just read this, it could be a story that happens every day.  It makes me think of some of the pictures that came out this fall of the Rohingya refugees who were forced to leave their homes in Myanmar and travel on foot to Bangladesh.  Some of the women were pregnant when they were forced to flee, and their babies were born on the side of the road and in refugee camps.  Forced migration seems to be part of our human story.

If we want to see what is special about this particular baby who was born far from home more than 2000 years ago, we have to look in the scriptures to what came before in the story, and what was to come after.

Nine months previously, an angel had appeared to his mother telling her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that the child she would bear would be holy, the Son of God.  And when this baby grew up, he would become a teacher and a healer; he would preach against the empire and about the coming kingdom of God, he would eventually be executed on a cross, but on the third day he would rise again.

But for now, he is a newborn baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a manger far from home.

Hymn:  What Child is This?

Third Lesson:  Luke 2:8-20

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Popular culture has co-opted the idea of angels, so that today, when you see pictures of angels, they are usually chubby child-like things with feathery white wings and halos.  We have cherubs for Valentine’s Day, and guardian angels that watch over us when we sleep.  My mother collected angels – she had stained glass angels, straw angels, porcelain angels, fabric angels, all on the shelves in the kitchen.

But this is not the biblical image of angels.  Angels in the bible are God’s messengers.  Some of them are named, like Gabriel and Michael, but most are unnamed.  There is no description of what they look like, or even if they have bodies; but when they appear, the first thing that they usually say is “Do not be afraid.”  Maybe this is the first part of God’s message to all of us; or maybe angels are just plain terrifying.

They shepherds in the field were terrified, but the Angel of the Lord says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Whenever God is doing something new in the world or in our lives, it is our normal reaction to be afraid.  But instead of listening to our fears and being led by our fears, I encourage you to listen to the message from God, sent to us through God’s messengers, God’s angels.  Do not be afraid.

Hymn:  Angels We Have Heard On High

Fourth Lesson:  Luke 2:21-40

Jesus was born to a Jewish family, and he lived and died as a Jewish man in first century Palestine.  We read about how he and his family followed the traditions and customs of their religion.  When he was 8 days old, Jesus was circumcised and named, as were all 8-day-old boys; a custom that continues in Jewish communities right through to today.  And then when he was 40 days old, they went to the temple so that Mary could be purified, as were all women after giving birth; and so that her firstborn son could be redeemed.  This is a tradition that goes right back to the Passover story before the Exodus from Egypt.  God “passed over” the houses of the Israelite people, sparing their firstborn sons while the firstborn sons of the Egyptian people all died.  Because of this, all firstborn sons belonged to God, and had to be redeemed, or purchased back.  And so Jesus’ parents made the appropriate sacrifice to God – a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

And there in the temple, our young family encounters the next two witnesses to Jesus Christ.  The first witnesses were the shepherds – when they had received their angelic visitors and had visited the newborn lying in a manger, they made known what they had heard and what they had seen.  And here at the temple, the family meets Simeon and Anna – an elderly man and an 84-year-old widow.  And these two faithful people praise God and prophesy and witness, telling people about this child that they have seen.

In a culture that worships youth and strength and beauty; we would do well to remember that there is an important place for everyone, no matter your age or ability, in God’s mission in the world.

Hymn:  Go, Tell it on the Mountains

Fifth Lesson:  Matthew 2:1-12

I am fascinated by the magi.  We aren’t told where they come from; we aren’t told how many of them there are; we aren’t told how they traveled from “the East” to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem.  The word “magi” is related to our English words mage and magician.  They might have been magicians, they might have been astronomers or astrologers, they might have been learned or wise scholars.

But wherever their profession, or wherever they came from, they traveled a long distance because they had seen a star.

Christmas cards tend to depict this star as hundreds of times bigger and brighter than a regular star.  But if this was the case, then surely someone other than this group of magi would have noticed it.  If there was a huge and bright star in the sky, why wasn’t the whole world flocking to Bethlehem?  Current-day astronomers have looked for some celestial event 2000 years ago that might explain the star that the magi were following, but they haven’t found any record of a comet or supernova appearing in that period of time.

So the only thing that I can think is that this group of magi was particularly observant.  They studied the stars so carefully that when something new appeared, they noticed it, even when the rest of the world didn’t.

I see the magi as offering a challenge to all of us.  How can we look for God working in our every-day lives?  If we are looking for exploding stars and supernovas and extraordinary miracles, then we will need to wait a long time; but if we are observant, if we pay attention, we will see God working in every minute of every day.

Hymn:  Angels from the Realms of Glory

Sixth Lesson:  Matthew 2:13-23

This is a part of the story that we don’t often hear read in churches.  We like to celebrate the newborn baby and angels and shepherds and magi.  We don’t like to think about Mary and Joseph and Jesus as refugees.

In Luke’s version of the nativity story, Mary and Joseph travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem where the baby is born.  In Matthew’s version of the story, they are forced to flee more than 400 miles after the baby is born, for fear for his life.

Our modern day world is filled with stories of refugees – people who are forced to leave their homes and flee, out of fear for their lives.  I mentioned earlier, the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, there are refugees from Syria settling in every part of the world, and we see pictures of people fleeing various conflicts in Africa, traveling by boat across the dangerous Mediterranean Sea.

This scripture tells us that God has experienced what it is like to be a refugee.  God has experienced what it is like to be so afraid of staying, that leaving home for the unknown becomes the only option.  God-in-Jesus has been a refugee, and is with all refugees and with all who are forced to flee or who have lost their homes.

Hymn:  Away in a Manger

Seventh Lesson:  John 1:1-14

And here is the core of the Christmas message – that God thought that we humans were worth coming to earth for; that we were worth becoming one of.  God’s Word became flesh and lived among us; lived as one of us; and in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, our humanity – our flesh and our experiences – can never more be separated from God.

A literal translation of that phrase that is translated here as, “lived among us,” would be “tented among us” or “made his dwelling with us.”  I read a translation this week, that the Word became flesh and blood and moved in to the ’hood.

Emmanuel.  God-With-Us.  Jesus is born, and God is human.  God is here, God is now, and we will never more be alone.  The light shines in the darkness of the world, and the darkness of the world can never extinguish the light of Christ.  Thanks be to God!

Hymn:  Silent Night, Holy Night

Waiting for the sunrise before worship started.
We can trust that the light of Christ has come in to the world -
even when it is -36 degrees outside!

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