Welcome to Advent Lutheran Church
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Sunday worship: Holy Communion at 10am
CHRISTMAS WORSHIP SCHEDULE
Sunday, December 17th
3rd Sunday in Advent,
10am Service followed by Greening of Church
Sunday December 24th
4th Sunday in Advent
With story for children,
Monday, December 25th
TUESDAY CHURCH SCHOOL ON RECESS UNTIL JANUARY 2ND
GIFTS FROM THE BLUE
The Church did not always celebrate the day of Christmas in its calendar. Easter and Good Friday were the original two big days because they captured the essence of Christianity – God died and rose in Jesus for us. Next came the celebration of Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit, because without the spirit there is no belief that God came in Christ, died and rose for us.
Christmas fills in the trinity of big holidays only after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and required everyone in his empire to do so, too. December 25th was chosen for two vague reasons: it had been celebrated before Christianity as the birth of Mythra, the patron of the Roman Army’s religion; and because it marks the first noticeable increasing of daylight from December 21st, the Winter Solstice. The sun was coming back, and a celebration was appropriate.
We do not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. We don’t even know the year since it is pegged to King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. Tradition puts the event in Bethlehem (the City of King David from 1000 B.C), but all his life Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a small town way in the north hinterlands, nowhere near Bethlehem. The two Bible birth stories (one in Matthew, a different one in Luke, none in Mark or John) cleverly weave these two cities into the incarnation of God into Jesus, but in different ways.
Alas, God does many things about which we are not totally sure.
Although we all know the baby Jesus and his mother are the chief figures of our Christmas holiday; the celebration of Christmas was first associated with St. Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (then Greece, today Turkey). He lived from 270 to 343 AD. His day is celebrated on December 6th – prior to Constantine this was, in effect, “Christmas”. He was known as a giver of secret gifts to the needy in his diocese – putting coins and treats in the shoes people left outside their simple homes as part of their custom of leaving their dirty shoes outside their otherwise cleaner homes. St. Nicholas was one of the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea, who signed the original Nicene Creed.
In Europe St. Nicholas somehow morphed into the Dutch Sinterklass. Like his Greek original, he was associated there with random gift giving to the poor and needy. In his case, in snowy Holland, by tossing coins down chimneys. How St. Nicholas and Sinteklass became associated with the celebration of Christmas 19 days after his day is not quite clear; but, it is easy to see how random, gracious, unmerited gift giving can be associated with the unmerited gift of his Son by God to us at Christmas.
The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, first published in 1823 but attributed to Clement Clark Moor (a New York doctor whose home is still marked on 9th Avenue) in 1837, depicts St. Nick as an elf-like tiny person, in a “miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer” bringing small presents to children by descending down their chimneys. The presents are still “out of the blue”, because no mention is made of the children being good or bad.
The point of all of this is not gift giving to children based on merit and behavior. We should not use the celebration of God’s entering our sinful world to redeem it at great cost, to entice our children into good behavior. Santa is not the all-knowing Oz who “sees you when you’re sleeping” – Santa came from St. Nicholas who gave graciously to those in need. Christmas is best celebrated by sharing what we have with the needy – even if that means no Lexus with a bow this year.
Children being naughty or nice was added with the 1934 song written by John Coots and Haven Gillespie for Eddie Cantor’s radio show. This removed the gift giving associated with the celebration of Christmas from the realm of grace – unmerited gifts “out of the blue” – and placed it as gifts prompted by good behavior. This is not the spirit of Christmas we celebrate as Christians today. We celebrate God sending his son from his grace, not because we were obedient, or good, or “nice”!
That’s what we Lutherans call GRACE. Grace is God’s love for all people in spite of their sin. Grace is God choosing Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple, and making them the parents of all Israel. Grace is God choosing David to be the greatest King of Israel, in spite of him being the last of several brothers, the most puny, with wandering eyes for Bathsheba. Grace is God coming in Jesus Christ to suffer and die for us. Grace is loving the unlovable. Grace is gifts placed in our shoes when we need them most. Grace is gold dropped down our chimneys out of the blue. Grace is God bringing presents to rich and poor alike. Grace is God healing sick children, or taking them to himself when healing is not the best solution. Grace is what we celebrate at Baptism. Grace is what we celebrate at Holy Communion. Grace is the simple one word summary of every good sermon. Grace is what every tiny child represents. Grace is what every elderly person will receive from God in due time.
Christmas is the celebration of God’s unfailing, unalterable, faithful grace.
Grace is not God giving us everything we demand (the Lexus with the bow, a new flat screen TV), but everything that we need. Grace is not God going against divine principles to manipulate lives and history, but remaining consistent so ultimately science, education and technology can cure disease and correct human problems. Grace is forgiveness in the face of sin, not rampant destruction of sinners here and now. Grace is patient.
May the Grace of God fill you as we celebrate Jesus’ gracious entry into our un-gracious world. Naughty or nice, Grace is God’s gift to you at Christmas. Pass it on.
This coming Sunday, December 3rd, is the First Sunday in Advent, or the beginning of our Church Year. We ended last Sunday celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.
Last Sunday we read a story about judgment from Matthew 25, beginning at verse 31:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
We have been reading so called “Parables of Judgment” for a few weeks now, because we think about the end of the era and judgment as we think about the end of the Church Year. Just as at New Year’s time we get sentimental and somewhat apprehensive, too, thinking of the old year and the unknown New Year, as the church year ends and a new one begins we think of what God has done last year, and what blessings the Lord may bring next year.
Be clear, these stories are sometimes labeled “end of the world”, and they do bring to mind the end of our lives; but they are really about a change in era that good people have been praying for, as when the Israelites prayed to be out of Egyptian slavery and Babylonian captivity. In Jesus’ day many religious people prayed to be free of the Roman occupation. None-the-less the stories often speak about judgment, terrible things happening, stars falling from the sky, etc. To find meaning in these so called Apocalyptic (revealing hidden secrets) stories, we need to get over the fear and simple dig into the meaning our Lord would have had.
Jesus did not come to scare people to death, to condemn people, to bring an end to the world - Jesus came to proclaim the Good News of God’s loving presence and gracious love.
The Gospel for Christ the King is a story about separation - a common element of judgment and harvest. On the surface it seems to introduce new criteria for earning God’s love. At the time many religious people felt they could earn God’s love by keeping the Law: a long list of religious rules summarized in the Ten Commandments, but encompassing far far more. This parable appears to change those criteria: instead of keeping rules to please God, you serve one another to please God. The principles of being kind to one another, helping widows and the poor, foreigners and travelers, were not new to the people of Jesus’ time. From the time of the prophet Amos, through to Isaiah and Jeremiah, God had proclaimed that religious rule-keeping could be hypocritical and surface obedience was not enough. People had to have the Law written in their hearts and in everything they did to express God’s love: that meant being just, kind and fair to all people. The parable seems to suggest following the views of the prophets rather than the Law of Moses.
But this revised way of earning God’s love is in the end no better than the original version, and it is not why Jesus came, suffered, died and was resurrected.
Notice the passage in pink. The people who were doing all these good deeds (feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, highlighted in yellow) did not know they were doing anything special. It was not an attempt to earn God’s love. It came from somewhere else in their hearts.
The Good News that we have been proclaiming all during the previous Church Year (and for years before) is simply stated: God loves us in our sin, in spite of our sin; forgives us, restores us. This gift should lead us to lives of thankfulness, shown to each other. In the words of Martin Luther, we don’t do good works to earn God’s love; we do them in response to the gift of God’s love. To quote Luther: “God doesn’t need our good works - but our neighbors do.”
Thus, the people who were judged favorably in this parable were simply tuned into their loving God.
As we get ready to celebrate the coming of God in the baby Jesus, remember that God is all around us. God is in the poor we help, the aliens we take in, the children we raise, the hungry we feed, even the enemies that we embrace and forgive. This world is filled with God - it is the dwelling place of God - so we need to care for it, tend it.
To bring this parable up to modern times, remember it this way: Whenever you volunteered with the homeless program, donate food to the Long Island Council of Churches, offer to get groceries for the man next door, teach in Church School and sing in the choir, recycle your cans and plastics, welcome foreigners, even if not quite legal, you are expressing the love you have received from God. You don’t do these things to get God’s love; you do them because you feel God’s love in your blessed life.
Our Loving God created this world.
The world is now fallen and the evidence of that is all around: sickness, war, injustice, abuse.
Yet the world is Redeemed from its fallenness by God's coming in Jesus Christ, God's son.
This redemption is only partial, however, until the Lord returns. In the meantime we grasp glimpses of the fully redeemed world when God's Word is preached and Sacraments are administered; when we love and care for each other; when we work for peace and justice.
Nobody likes to surrender. It’s a sign of weakness, loss, rejection; whether it is in battle, in divorce, or in loosing a political battle.
In this the 500th anniversary of Luther’s opening foray into Reformation (the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517) we think a lot about what Luther taught us. He taught us to surrender.
Not to surrender to the forces of corruption, misinformation and power in his Church (it was not all bad by any means, as we Protestants often depict it) – he sort of won that battle. Not that he won it the way he wanted to – what he really wanted was to reform the church from within, to have it be more tuned to the gospel message and the needs of the people, and to remain within it - for the church to remain in tact. The fracturing of the church that occurred when Luther was excommunicated in 1520, and after the Peace of Augsburg in 1585 (Luther was dead by then) left the various German principalities able to select whether they be Lutheran or Roman Catholic – Luther did NOT set our to do that. The church which divided around 1000 AD when East (Orthodox) and West (Roman) separated through mutual excommunication; was now further divided when West morphed into Protestant and Roman.
One thing central to Luther’s understanding of God is surrender. To surrender to God’s gift of faith given by the power of the Holy Spirit. To surrender to the unbelievable story of Jesus: the humble itinerate preacher whose band of outcasts ended up scattered with their leader executed; who believed he had risen; who believed they had a mission to the world to proclaim that God actually loved them all: the poor, the outcast, the non-pious, sinners.
While the church of Luther’s day taught people “the rules” on how to please God (and it was difficult indeed), Luther taught that God already loved them! While the church of his day taught the complications of a sacramentary system, Luther taught that Baptism welcomes us into God’s family without our doing anything; and that Holy Communion announces God’s gift of salvation to all.
In his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed in his Small Catechism, Martin Luther says:
"I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith."
For Luther, the Christian life was surrendering, passively receiving, God’s call, enlightenment, sanctification and faith. Faith isn’t something you have to develop on your own through rigorous religious practices, faith is a gift through the Spirit. Faith isn’t something you will be judged on – and perhaps because of too much doubt, you will be rejected. Faith is the result of surrendering to God.
At Easter we surrender to the faith God gives us that Jesus was indeed something of God come to us to bring us all back together. That we are reconciled to God, by God, and now live in peace. Easter is the Feast of God’s Victory and our surrender.
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