Welcome to Advent Lutheran Church
What We Do
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 25 was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus for two 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. It has nothing to do with the reality of when Jesus was born.
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), even though 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.
In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem because Joseph was of the family of David. Jesus is born in their “house” (Matthew 2:11), but the family flees to Egypt to avoid Herod who was killing babies whom he thought were threats to his rule. After a while they return to Israel, but go to Nazareth in the north to avoid Herod’s son.
In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth, but go to Bethlehem only to register for a tax. While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a stable. They return to Nazareth after a b rief visit to the Temple.
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, 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, nor of the birth of Jesus. But even in the 1830s, Christmas is become more of a children’s holiday.
The point of Clement Moor’s poem is not gift giving to children based on whether they were well behaved. That concept enters Christmas gift-giving only after the 1934 song written by John Coots and Haven Gillespie for Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Santa becomes an almost God-like creature, “Knowing when you are asleep, knowing if you’ve been bad or good”. He gives gifts only to good little children. Christmas has moved, thus, far away from its origins. Nothing is mentioned of Jesus’ birth in this song at all.
Gifts from out of the blue, for the needy not the good, is 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 God turning us around so we can care more for each other. 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.. The Kingdom of God is here, amongst you, the gifts of God are all around you. Celebrate God at Christmas - his stooping to enter our fallen world with his loving presence.
18th Sunday in Pentecost, October 9, 2022
Many times in the New Testament miracle stories are not used as any kind of proofs about Jesus being from God, but are teaching stories. In today's gospel we hear of how Jesus cured ten lepers and only one returned to thank him. The One did not take for granted the kindness shown to him, but takes time to thank Jesus and to glorify God. Hear the Holy Gospel from the 17th chapter of Luke, beginning at the 11th verse:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." This is the Gospel for today.
Miracles are not “proofs” that God exists which help us from time to time in special ways. As such we are “required” to believe they actually happened, even though we were not there to see them. They are, instead, examples of how God turns us around, gives us new beginnings; so we don’t have to believe them literally, because we have our own stories of God entering our lives and turning us around - stories that we have witnessed personally.
In some cases God acts through “negative” things to set us on a new path. When I failed to achieve well in Engineering courses in college, I switched to Liberal Acts (History), and achieved far more. I would not be your pastor today, had this not happened. God turned me around.
In other cases God acts “out of the blue” to point us in another direction. I was about to be graduated from Seminary and go off to my first Call as an assistant Pastor in Franklin Square. I was not married, and had no prospects of marriage. One day I decided to take part in a Seminary play. From there a friend, also in the play, thought we should get dates and go to dinner before the last play, and then to the concluding cast party. Having no “girl friend” at the time, I turned to a young lady I knew from my field work assignment. We were married the next June. I don’t know how I could have gone through the next 54 years without her. God turned us both around.
Today’s Gospel is a story of Jesus curing and turning around ten people suffering from leprosy. Leprosy was known, even then, to be terribly contagious. Lepers were ostracized from the villages, forced to live often in cemeteries or other barren land without contact with others. Those who loved them would leave food for them at night at set up locations. They often had bells around them to warn people that there was a leper around - to keep your distance. Their lives were not “normal” in any way. When Jesus cured the ten lepers in today’s story, not only were they made well from a terminal disease, they were now welcomed back to society - to a real life. It was something to give great thanks for.
Yet for some reason only one of them came back to say “thank you”. They all, following Jewish Law and Jesus’ instructions, went to show themselves to the Priests so they could be officially declared “cured”, but only one of them came back to Jesus to say thanks. As big a positive, miraculous, event this must have been for the ten, only one came back.
When miracles occur in our lives, we often forget they are the working of God in our lives. We think they are just accidents, human workings. I try to thank God daily that I left Engineering (for whatever reason) and that I found Lynn.
I ask all of you reading this sermon not to worry about the miracles in the Bible (do you believe them or not?) but to open your eyes to the miracles that have actually happened to you in your life: the times you were cured by modern medicine or a new surgery technique, the special house you “found” and have lived in for years; the wonderful children you have, etc. God was behind every one of them. Let us thank God for all good gifts around us.
In the Gospel for September 25th we read the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We learned that wealth and good luck seem to obscure our view of God working in our lives. In today’s story, once they were cured - the change was so dramatic - the lepers forgot that they once suffered and who cured them. When we experience good times, good health, and financial stability we forget that all that came to us by a series of small miracles throughout our lives ( the choice of a right school and friends, the choice of a good home, the choice of a good spouse, etc.) freely given to us by God.
We have just lived through 3 years of the Covid Pandemic. God brought to us the most rapid development of a vaccination of all time, the dedication of health care workers who risked their lives daily to serve us, and sound public health management (mandatory masks wearing, quarantine, work and school closings at first - much of which some people fought hard against). All these things, although not saving everyone, enabled those who are alive today to give a large “thank you” to God and all of God’s instruments.
Now we pray that God would turn around the situation in Ukraine, so the people may not be killing one another, so massive amounts of resource not be lost, and so evil will not survive in our modern world. And we pray for each of our families - that they may be turned from sickness to good health, from rancor to peace, from separation to community.