The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement

One in Christ. Gifted by Grace. Called to Serve.

The Season of Christmas 2016

Nativity 2016: They Returned Praising God

This sermon was preached for the Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, 2016. The readings were: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, who is the Christ. Amen.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The angel reports the good news of Jesus, perhaps acting as the very first evangelist, proclaiming that Christ has come for us to this place. This place was Bethlehem for the shepherds. But this was not the first time or place that the Savior had acted, that as Titus says, “the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared.”

“When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared”, the watchers on the walls hollered that the evil empire had fallen, that the people living in exile were free to return home, that dawn had risen on the people who had lingered in the darkness of oppression. And so, responding to the good news of God’s deliverance, the people of Judah returned along the highways and byways to Jerusalem, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.

“When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared,” the Hebrew people gathered around the Ark of the Covenant, or in the Temple, or in the synagogue; they sang the songs that flew from the mouths of Moses and Miriam, David and Esther, and they praise the Lord who is King over all the earth. And when worship was over, when the people were full and the feast warm in their hearts and stomachs, they returned home glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.

“When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared,” the Church was born. We became a people who are showered in the love and mercy of a God who will wake up early in the morning with us, a God who will forgive us through our faults and our failings, a God who is not afraid of our deaths and decisions. We became a people who have hope in the Lord who is King, whose rule brings joy to the earth, whose death has become the source of life for us all; and the early Christians returned home glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.

“When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared” it was not just to ancient Hebrews, to exiles in Babylon, to shepherds in a field or early Christians gathered around Word and Meal. The appearance is an epiphany, a manifestation of God, in actual flesh and blood. The God who showed up in Bethlehem is still enfleshed, still among us in the bread and the wine. The appearance of God incarnate, the Word Made Flesh, is here and now on Christmas Day at Atonement in Asbury Park. It is true also at Redeemer in Neptune, at Reformation in West Long Branch, at all places where the word is preached and the sacrament administered according to the good news: “To you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior – which is Christ, the Lord.” This is the news that draws us to our Lord’s glorious appearing, to rejoice for Christ is King, and to return home glorifying and praising God for all we have seen.

And the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Christmas Eve: The Happy Exchange

This sermon was preached for the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, December 24, 2016. The readings were: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1: 1-14.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. What do these words mean to us, what does the incarnation of Jesus mean to us, here and now on the edge of 2017? Do they refer to any presents we might enjoy tonight or tomorrow? Do they refer to our houses and cars and jobs and families, the things which sustain our lives in this world? Is it about hope and love, perhaps, or about peace or justice or the American way? In these options, we would miss the true meaning of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The primary message of Jesus Christ is not about who we are, but about who God is.

It makes sense, after all. In the dark moments, when the noise of the world dies down, when we face the mirror, stand preparing ourselves for the next day, the next hour, the next moment of struggle, we already know ourselves if we would only admit it. Something is wrong. We feel it in the quiet times, the still of the morning or the pause of the evening or the prayer before meals. We see the face of the person we fight, or dislike, or even ignore. We remember the homeless, the starving, the desperate. We feel helpless, powerless, hopeless. And on occasion we attend a funeral, where it’s all a bit obvious; we are dying. All of us, from the greatest to the least, from the oldest to the youngest, are stuck with the trap of death, the trap of ourselves, the trap of our own inability. We know this. God knows this.

In some religious traditions, the abandonment of this feeling of inadequacy is needed, the deadening of desire; in others, obedience and discipline is the answer; in still others, a system is devised to say that there is nothing wrong with death and despair, that all these are normal processes and that even our destruction is not to be denied but to be understood and experienced openly. Here, in this place, we say that we are under attack. From within and without, we have been occupied by forces that are wrong, that are anti-life, that kill us and our neighbors. These forces attempt to convince us that no amount of power or pleasure will ever be adequate, and that we should eat each other alive to achieve the next high. And all too often, we bow to those messages of fear, messages of alienation and terror. We are controlled by our desire to protect ourselves rather than our neighbor, we are compelled by our fear or discomfort about our own privilege. We are not motivated by love for those whom God created and called us to love especially and sacrificially: the minorities, like Jesus was. The religious outsider, like Jesus was. The refugee, like Jesus was. The non-citizen, like Jesus was. The vulnerable, like Jesus was. The wrongly convicted, the wrongly killed, like Jesus was.

The light shines in the dark. God was not and will never be silent. But God does not come to scold, or threaten, or punish. God is not interested in the tactics we so often use to get what we want in life. God did not use divine power to crush and curse us; God did not seek to rewrite our minds or blast our brains to mush with the force of the divine Word. Instead, the Word became flesh and lived among us. God became human like us, and moved into the neighborhood. In Jesus Christ, God became a human being: a vulnerable, non-citizen, refugee outsider from the backwoods of nowhere with no protection and no rights. Jesus became one of us, stuck with the trap of death, the trap of ourselves, the trap of our own vulnerability. God entered into the mud and crud of our lives. And God did this not to drum down who we are, but to tell us who God is for us. No one has ever seen God – it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

God did not come into a bawling, soiled, naked human body because it seemed fun, or to show us how we are doing it wrong; God came to show us that God will not abandon the crying refugee children, the babies born to refugees and immigrants, the diseased and the hurting and the vulnerable, the wrongfully convicted and the horribly executed. God will not turn a blind eye to our traps and stumbles, our pains and loneliness. God took it all on in Jesus, to show us that what God is all about is taking what we are and giving us who God is; giving us light in our darkness, giving us peace in our conflicts and wars, giving us comfort in our pain, giving us life even in our deaths. It’s called the happy exchange, and it’s what happens when you give someone a gift card to Target and they give you exactly what you’ve wanted and didn’t have the courage to even ask for - a new car, or a new house, or perhaps most truly, an engagement ring. It’s what happens in the manger, on the cross, in the empty tomb. Jesus comes down to take everything we are and suffer, so that we might have everything that belongs to God.

The Word became flesh to save us. To heal us. To give us joy. To throw down everything that oppresses us, including ourselves. To renew the world. To release the captives. To feed the hungry. To show us that in the midst of all we are, this is who God is – the one who comes all the way down to us. The one who will not abandon us. The one who will give us everything, not because of who we are, but because of who God is for us. This is the King of the Universe, giving crowns away. This is the Prince of Peace, taking our wounds so that we might be healed. This is the King of Glory, who is dragged through the mud and pain and sorrow and death of our lives so that his glory might be ours. This is the Lord of Life, who dies so that we might live with him forever. This is the Word which made all things, which cries from the manger and the cross, and who now calls you to life everlasting, who gives grace upon grace for mercy’s sake, who sends the good news which brings joy to the world: your God reigns!

And so the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.