Sermon delivered by David Burrow December 1, 2013 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (19.8MB - .mp3)
God calls us to be a loving community of faith, a people united and uniting. God calls us to welcome all people in the name of Jesus Christ, who welcomes us.
God calls us to invite all people to participate with us in life-renewing worship, to cry out in our brokenness, and to celebrate God’s grace and blessing upon us.
God calls us to discover and celebrate God’s ways in the Bible, through our rich heritage, by our faithful witness to the living Word, and in the fresh winds of the Spirit.
God calls us to promote the integrity, justice, mercy, and peace God intends for all creation and to reach out in care and service for others.
God calls us to support one another and to share in the hopes and fears, joys and sorrows of all people, both in our church and all over the world. AMEN.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. … Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. … The earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Happy New Year! While it sounds a bit strange to say that right after Thanksgiving, it’s a legitimate greeting today—and it’s not some secular way of avoiding Christmas. It’s Advent again, the start of the year for Christian churches and a time of renewal and re-commitment every bit as important as January 1st.
Modern scholars will tell you that it’s pretty much certain Jesus was not born in December. In spite of that, there’s good reason our ancestors chose the winter solstice as the time to commemorate Christ’s birth. December is a time when all of us need a bit of spiritual renewal. It’s easy to be to be Christian in springtime—when flowers are budding and birds return, in the summer—when skies are sunny and days are long, or in fall—when we marvel at colorful leaves and celebrate bountiful harvests. When the weather gets cold and the nights grow long, though, many of us start to feel run down, both in our lives and our faith. An old carol begins “in the bleak midwinter”, and that bleakness is what a lot of us feel this time of year. The old Broadway musical Mame begins with the song “We Need a Little Christmas”, and as the days grow shorter, that’s exactly what we do need. We need to re-charge our spiritual batteries and get a fresh start on our Christian lives.
So here we are again at the new year for Christianity, the season of Advent when we look forward to the coming of Christ. It’s a time of hope and renewal for each of us, and for our church and our world. Just as the secular new year means different things to different people, so it is with Advent. For a lot of us preparing for Christmas means hauling out the decorations and hoping nothing’s broken and all the lights are in working order. For others it means sending off cards—often to people we don’t even think of the other eleven months of the year. For some of us December is a time to shop till we drop, and for others it means sporting those brightly colored holiday ties, T-shirts, and sweaters.
In the home I grew up in Advent was all about food, and—above all else—it was about candy. I was never a great fan of my mother’s bland everyday cooking, but she was a master with chocolate and all the ball and crack stages of syrup. Cooking may seem like the most secular part of the holidays, but trust me—Betty Burrow’s classic Southern pralines were truly a religious experience.
Around the world the range of Advent customs is just as diverse as the range of Christian churches. I grew up in an area with mostly British and Swedish influence, and I have fond memories of a Yule log burning in our church fireplace all through the holidays. Not many people in this part of Iowa have even heard of Yule logs. Here most of my friends celebrate German customs—things like adding decorations to a Jesse tree, something no one where I grew up had even heard of.
Other places have other traditions. In many Hispanic countries Advent is spent with the Posadas, a nine-day reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Dutch children put out their shoes on the night of December 5th, hoping that the original St. Nicholas will fill them with candy. In France families always display nativity scenes, and it’s traditional that each year they carve a new piece to add to the display.
The whole idea of Advent is a time of preparation. Nowhere is this more evident than in Russia. There Christmas doesn’t come until January 7th, and the entire month of December is the traditional time of annual cleaning. Women clean their homes and men clean the churches to make sure everything is in perfect order by Christmas Day. Many African—Americans follow a similar tradition in their homes and churches.
One tradition almost all Christians have in common is the Advent wreath, though there are differences even there. Back in Medieval times the Advent candles were pretty much always white—which we've used in our church many times. When I was a kid the Advent wreaths I saw all had four purple candles. About the time I was in high school someone came up with the idea of changing one of the candles to pink—though no one seems to have a definitive answer as to exactly which candle is supposed to be pink or what it is supposed to symbolize. In some churches they don’t use purple candles at all, but rather blue ones. Those churches also use blue for the vestments and alter cloths throughout the Advent season.
Churches also differ in the mood they set during Advent. Everyone agrees that Advent is a time to “prepare the way of the Lord”, but there’s a wide range of opinion on how to accomplish that. In many churches Advent is an extremely solemn time, a time of penitence and contemplation. They take quite literally John the Baptist’s plea to repent, and they treat Advent almost like Lent or Ramadan. To them fasting and self-denial are the way to prepare for Christ’s coming. While that’s not at all the view of the modern United Church of Christ, our Puritan ancestors would have been right at home with that attitude. It was they who banned Christmas celebrations in England, and they’d certainly have felt that any celebration before the holiday was frivolous.
If fasting and contemplation lead some people closer to God, that’s great. What I don’t have much time for, though, are people who think that’s the only way to prepare for Jesus’ birth. I firmly believe that God speaks to different people in different ways. As a teacher I know every student learns differently, and I’ll change the way I present things to try to help everybody get it. I try to be a good teacher, but of course God is far better than I am. As the true master teacher, surely he will relate to each of us on our own level, in the way we can best understand.
So each of us is different, and each of us should prepare for Christmas in our own way. How exactly do we do that? Well, I won’t pretend to tell any of you what you should do, but I will tell you what I do during Advent. One of my personal traditions involves Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Each year I read through the book in its entirety—from “Marley was dead to begin with” to “God bless us, every one”. I own half a dozen well-worn copies of the book, and in recent years I’ve read it on my Kindle. I also have tapes and DVDs with various versions of the story. I’ve seen numerous stage adaptations, and I even starred in two different community theatre productions of A Christmas Carol. One of the coolest experiences of my life happened a few years back when I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in London and was able to see some of the places Dickens wrote about in person. Especially at the time the British call “Festive Season” everything in the city reminded me of Bob Cratchit, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the ghosts.
While I truly love Dickens’ careful Victorian language, it’s Scrooge’s miraculous transformation that makes A Christmas Carol so moving. I also love other stories that show the triumph of the holiday spirit. I love the original Dr. Seuss version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s many accounts of Christmas joy triumphing over hard times. And, in spite of bad animation, I love the old ‘60s cartoon Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which celebrates the contributions of those who everyone seems to think don’t fit in.
None of those is a directly religious work. A Christmas Carol has been quoted in many churches, including this one, but just about the only direct references to religion Dickens makes in the book are a prayer before a meal and the four-word sentence “He went to church”. The others have similarly vague references to Christianity. These secular stories, though, are similar to the parables Jesus tells in the gospels. They tell us how we should be living—how we should go about preparing the way of the Lord. The basic message of those stories is identical to Christ’s message: be good to one another. Just like the Bible they tell us that everyone has value, and we need to open our hearts to nurture one another and let God’s love work through us.
Once I read those books and watch those videos, I spend Advent trying as hard as I can to make the changes they represent in my own life. While I certainly have plenty of sins, I don’t spend a huge amount of time in penance—not in Advent, or any other time, for that matter. Instead I try my hardest to be as good a person as I can be and to recognize the good in all the people around me. Of course, that’s what we should do all year round, but it’s especially important at Christmas.
So, how can we be better people? Well, if you need concrete ideas on that, I encourage you to check out the website of an organization called People for Good. They’re a Canadian group that asserts that no one is born bad, and there’s no reason we all shouldn’t do good when we grow up. They point out that “if good deeds were more common, they wouldn’t stand out so much.” They give all kinds of suggestions on how we can treat each other better. Most are just common courtesy and friendliness, but it’s the kind of things that just don’t seem that common these days. If you go to Canada you can see their ads all over the place, but you can also check them out at peopleforgood.ca. While the group doesn’t operate in America, there’s no reason we can’t emulate them here—and it’s exactly the sort of thing we should do to prepare the way for Christ.
I encountered People for Good while I was traveling in Canada, and while making a trip in the opposite direction I ran across another group that gives good ideas on how we can prepare God’s way. Down in Austin, Texas there’s a Christian service group called Micah 6 that combines churches of a wide variety of backgrounds. One of their founding churches, the Austin Congregational United Church of Christ, was the source for our Affirmation of Faith today. Micah 6 runs a food pantry, a homeless shelter, and a youth drop-in center, and they provide direct help to people in need without worrying about their background or beliefs. Micah 6 takes its name from a chapter of the Bible that makes it very clear what we should do to prepare the way of the Lord. The key verse is Micah 6:8, which says “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” There is certainly no better advice on how to live our lives—whether as we prepare for Christmas or any other time of the year. To live out our faith we must act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
I want to close today with one more example of people who are preparing God’s way by doing good works in the world. I know that—like most UCC churches—ours is a very generous congregation. We support dozens of different missions projects each year—both in our community and all over the globe. Something those of us in wealthy western countries don’t often think, though, is that people we’re used to helping might help us in return.
Well last August I was in Calgary, Alberta. You might or might not know that earlier in the summer there were severe floods in Calgary that forced more than 100,000 people from their homes. A relief fund was established, and millions of dollars poured in—much of it tax write-offs for wealthy people and corporations.
While I was in Calgary I happened to read a very touching story about an orphan’s home called the Place of Rescue in Cambodia. The children there had gotten aid from churches in North America, and when they heard of the disaster on our continent, they wanted to do what they could to give back. The Cambodian children pooled their coins and managed to donate almost $900 to help the flood victims in Canada.
There was a lot of controversy as to whether the flood relief fund should accept the orphans’ gift, and it forced many Albertans to realize that even in an emergency their need was not nearly so great as what some people face every day of their lives. The children’s generosity shamed many people—myself included—into contributing to both the flood recovery and the orphan’s home.
I do believe that God speaks to different people in different ways, and that’s why there’s different customs for Advent and Christmas. God doesn’t speak to me through penitence and self-denial. Instead, for me this time of preparation is a time of celebration. For me, and for our modern United Church of Christ, the key to Advent is Paul’s command to “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you” and to “live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus”. It’s through love, friendship, and charity that we prepare the way of the Lord and make straight the highway for our King.
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