A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sermon (January 6) "Skipping Into the New Year"

     I grew up on a farm in southeastern, Pennsylvania.  I dreaded it whenever it was late at night and dad would ask me to go to the barn and check on something.  Off I went, just hoping that I would make it back safe and sound!
     After I accomplished whatever chore needed to get done, and believe me, I did it very quickly I would run as fast as I could back to the house.  It’s amazing how fast you can run when you’re afraid!
     We live in a world that is filled with fear.  Some people like to use fear to get you to think like they think or to do what they want you to do because they know that fear is an effective tool.  This is why bullying is a huge problem in our schools.  Ironically, people choose to be bullies because they are the ones who are afraid.  They’re afraid of people who are different from them and so they act out of their fear.
     Bullying isn’t confined to young people.  There are adults who are bullies.  There are adults who use verbal threats and shouting matches to get their way because they are afraid of losing control and power.
     Often times, we don’t know how afraid we are until we are put into crisis situations.  They reveal what’s inside of us. 
     It’s been a little over three weeks now, but we are still grief stricken and saddened over the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  During one of the news shows, they interviewed the adult daughter of the Principal of the school, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung who was killed while trying to stop the shooter.
     The daughter said that it didn’t surprise her that her mom put her life in danger to protect her school. Here is what she said:
     “She faced every single problem that she ever had in her life head on.  My cousin referred to her as a bull yesterday. There’s no stopping Dawn when she has a mission.  She gets it done, and she gives it everything she has.”
     This daughter than shared this note that her mom had written for her which she shared during the interview.  The note read:
     “My dearest Erica, you are and forever will be my sweet baby girl.  You possess a piece of my heart and soul, and I will never be complete without you.  Remember this in your darkest times…you are never alone. Your Mom.”
     I remember watching a news story about a burglar who broke into a home.  A young child was the only one in the house at the time and he calmly called 911.  He didn’t let fear overcome him and he was able to stay focused.
     It’s not easy to stay calm in a world that is filled with fear.  As we enter into a new year, we might be experiencing some anxiety and fear.  We don’t know what the future holds.  We wonder if we’ll be able to handle the challenges that will come our way this year.
     Today is Epiphany Sunday, the 12th day of Christmas.  Epiphany is a very hope-filled day on our church calendar because it focuses on Jesus who is the light of the world.  It was a shining star that led the wise men from afar to find the Christ Child.
     The gospel writer, John begins his gospel by referring to the light that has come into the world.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The reason I was scared for my life every time I went out to the barn late at night was because of the darkness.
     If you walk through the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you enter through a very narrow, short corridor where the park ranger will have you stand still and then all of the lights are shut off.  It is so dark in that moment that you can’t see your hands even if they are right in front of your eyes.
     The ranger will then flick on a very powerful flashlight.  The light from that beam literally overcomes the darkness.  This is the image that the gospel writer is using in introducing Jesus Christ to us.  It’s like John is saying, “Look, I know the darkness of life is very real.  I know that the world can be a scary place.  I know that there are times when it seems like there is nothing but darkness in front of us.  But here’s the good news. There is a light that can overcome any darkness that might come your way.  And that light is Jesus Christ.
     John is using Genesis and creation of the world language to emphasize that Jesus is the light of the world.  Just as God created light at the beginning of creation, God has sent Jesus to be the light of the world.  What a powerful image for us to keep in mind as we begin this New Year together.
     Jesus is the light of the world.  And the reason that Jesus is the light of the world is because John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In other words, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has moved next door to us.  God is that close to us.  This is the good news of Christmas.  This is the good news of Epiphany.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
     Many times, I am reminded of this good news of our faith during my weekly pastoral visits.  I was visiting a member of our church who was in the hospital.  He was in the room all alone, lying flat on his back.  During my visit with him, he became teary eyed as he shared, “You don’t know how much it means to me that different people from the church have been stopping by to offer a scripture verse and to prayer for me.  It reminds me that I’m not alone.” 
     I was visiting one of our members who recently moved into a nursing home.  It hadn’t been that long ago that I officiated at her husband’s funeral, her husband of seventy-three years. As I was visiting with her, I couldn’t help but to think about all of the major changes that were going on in her life. 
     It was just her living in this room toward the very end of one of the nursing home wings.  She said that it’s quiet back in that corner of the building and she has a lot of time to think and pray.  During my hour long visit, she said something that has stuck with me.  And she said it at least three different times during our conversation.  After she said how she misses her husband and the home where they had lived for so many years, an unexpected smile came to her face and she said, “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”
     Those words stayed with me the rest of the day and I often think of them whenever I am facing fear and uncertainty.  “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”  Would you repeat that with me?  “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”
     “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
     A couple of years ago, a pastor was visiting a church on the first Sunday of the New Year.  They were celebrating Holy Communion that Sunday, like we are today.  This pastor and his wife were sitting in one of the front pews that Sunday morning which meant that they were one of the first to receive the Sacrament.
     After they received the bread and the cup, they returned to their pew.  This pastor was sitting there listening to the beautiful music and reflecting on the meaning of the Sacrament and God’s love when he noticed a young family that was just kneeling at the chancel railing. 
     The two little girls, probably around five and seven years old, enthusiastically received the Sacrament in such a joyful way that this scene made him smile with delight.  After this family received communion, they stood up and began to walk back the center aisle to their seats. The girls walked on either side of the father while holding his hand. 
     The five year old on the dad’s left broke into a huge smile and she started skipping back to the pew.  The joy of being in worship and receiving the Sacrament overwhelmed her and she responded by skipping.  As this pastor watched this scene, he said a little prayer for himself and everyone in that sanctuary to have that same kind of joy in their faith as this little five year old girl.
     I think this pastor’s experience can become a symbol for our faith.  Like the little girl that day, let’s skip into this New Year.  Let’s receive the bread and the cup with joy.  Let’s take the hand of Jesus and skip with great delight.  Let’s skip into the darkness, knowing that Jesus is the light of the world.  Let’s skip into the unknown, knowing that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
     Let’s skip into the New Year, knowing that we are not alone.  God is with us.  Let’s skip into the New Year, because Jesus will overcome any darkness we may face.  Let’s skip into the New Year because the light that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem is the same light that leads us to Christ.
     Let’s skip into the New Year because with Christ, there is nothing to fear.

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