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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon (November 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaim Christmas: Great Expectations"

     About this time last year, Pew Research conducted a poll of a random selection of people in our country regarding their thoughts about Christmas. The encouraging news is that 92% of those who were sampled say that they celebrate Christmas. The discouraging news is that only half of those said that Christmas is a religious holiday.
     Here are some other results from the survey. Attending Christmas Eve services is on the decline. It has gone from 69% to just 54%. This next statistic doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with my main message for today but I did find this other survey response interesting. Sending Christmas cards through the mail is also on the decline from 81% to now just 65% of us.
     So just think about this. While the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday is gradually falling by the wayside, listen to how people responded to this other survey question. And again, this is from just one year ago.
     They asked people, “What do you like least about Christmas?” The top three responses were commercialism, all the extra shopping, and trying to get through all of the crowded stores.
     I don’t know about you, but I find these Pew Research survey responses quite interesting. On one hand, we are seeing Christmas as less of a religious holiday and more of a secular holiday. But on the other hand, we are reacting more and more negatively toward the non-religious practices of the holiday such as commercialism.
     The commercialism side of Christmas has really gotten out of hand for both the religious and the non-religious. That’s why I believe our scripture readings for this morning offer us a much better way of preparing for Christmas.
     Writing hundred of years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah, speaking to a very tired and weary people wanted them to know that something incredibly wonderful would happen to them. God was about to turn their darkness into light. The people would be able to experience joy and hope.
      God will send a child who will be born unto them. All authority will rest upon his shoulders and he will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This child will continue the throne of David and he will uphold it with justice and righteousness.
     It is no coincidence that when Jesus began his public ministry hundreds of years after these words were first spoken, that he said that he came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
     Helping people who are struggling to find hope and freedom from despair is at the heart of the Christmas story.   But somehow, we as a culture have lost sight of the true meaning of this season. Instead of it being about Jesus’ presence, we have made it about getting presents under the tree.
     That’s why this Season of Advent and preparation is so important for us during these weeks leading up to Christmas. This is a time for us to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.
     The way we reclaim Christmas is the really fun part in all of this. We reclaim Christmas by allowing God to use us to make a difference in the world. God didn’t send us Jesus so that we can sit back and sing Christmas carols. God sent us Jesus so that we would become his followers and live out his mission of bringing transformation to our community and world in very real and practical ways.
    The story of God becoming human in the person of Jesus is the miracle of all miracles. But what’s even greater than that is in how God continues to work through ordinary people like you and me to make a difference in the lives of others.
     The question is if we are willing to sacrifice some of our own comfort for the good of others. That’s what is involved in having great expectations this Christmas.
     Everything about our culture tells us that Christmas is about us. Maybe this is a year when we can reclaim these words of Isaiah and offer good news to people who are walking in the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of poverty, the darkness of loneliness or some other kind of darkness. Christmas is about how God’s light can remove the darkness in people’s lives.

     Toward the end of the summer, I came across Pope Francis’s ten-point outline plan for happiness. It was released to celebrate his first five hundred days in office. Coming in at number two on his list of being happy is to give yourself to others.
     Pope Francis is constantly reminding people that charity shouldn’t stop at giving money to help others. Charity should also include giving one’s time to someone who needs it. He says that if we think of only ourselves, we run the risk of living stagnant lives.
     Who are the people who are waiting to see a great light? Is God calling you to share the light to someone in need? These are important questions for us during these weeks of Advent if we want to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.
     Curt was a member of one of the churches I served. He was a gifted artist and had been recently retired. He was best known as the man who had painted animals from the Noah’s Ark story on the walls of the church nursery. Curt was also one of our ushers and was active in his Sunday School class.
      While I was there, Curt became ill and was in and out of the hospital. The people in the church and especially the people in his Sunday School class prayed for him, took meals to their home, and sent him get well cards.
     Curt reached a point in his illness where they were having hospice come to the home to care for him. He missed not being able to go to church on Sunday mornings so I would stop by his house whenever I had the opportunity.
     One day, Curt’s wife called to see if I could bring Holy Communion to their home. I was meeting with my clergy cluster that day. Our cluster consisted of ten United Methodist pastors serving within a twenty-minute radius of each other. We met once a month to pray together, encourage each other, and think of ways that our churches could share in ministry together.
     Knowing that I needed to go to Curt’s house after our cluster meeting, I felt a little nudge from the Holy Spirit to see if anybody from our clergy meeting would want to come with me. I explained the situation to them and they all agreed to join me.
     When I arrived at the house, Curt’s wife was surprised to see all of these people at her doorstep. I told her that these were several United Methodist clergy serving churches in our county and they just wanted to stop by with me and offer their love and support. A big smile came to her face and she said, “Curt will really love this.”
     When I saw Curt, I told him, “You said you would like a pastoral call so I thought I would bring every United Methodist clergy in the county to see you. I hope that’s OK.”  He was so glad to see all of these pastors.
     One of us read a scripture passage. Another shared a brief devotional thought. One of us anointed Curt with oil. And all of us joined in offering a prayer for God’s comforting presence to surround him. We even sang a hymn for him and we sounded pretty good.
     The next day, I received a call from Curt’s wife. She just called to let me know that our visit meant so much to him. It’s not often that ten United Methodist clergy make a house call together! I sent an email to the clergy group to let them know what a blessing they were to Curt.
     I look back on that day when we all visited Curt at his home and I’m still amazed that every clergy person was willing to sacrifice part of their time that day to be a blessing for someone who wasn’t even a member of their church. They didn’t just bless Curt and his wife. They blessed me that day. That was the United Methodist connection at its best!
     I have learned over the years that shining God’s light doesn’t have to be all that complicated. It’s just a matter of being open to those nudges and seeing what God will do in and through us.

     If you received a Sunday bulletin this morning, I left a space in the sermon outline where you can list three or four items for your Christmas wish list this year. Next to each Christmas wish, you might want to write down at least one specific way that you can be part of making that wish come true in somebody’s life. Remember, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It might be doing a simple thing like offering your time and just being there for someone in the midst of their darkness.
     Sometime before leaving church today or even by the end of this week, share your list with at least one other person. Invite them to share their wish list with you and offer encouragement.
     I also want you to know about our church-wide Christmas wish list. For Christmas this year, our church has great expectations to financially support our Christmas missions offering.
     There are four items under this church-wide wish list. These include supporting our partner church in Lithuania, helping to eliminate hunger in Africa through the Africa Development Fund, supporting Good Works ministry nearby in Athens, and providing a gift to Imagine No Malaria which is helping to save lives in Africa.
     Last year through our Christmas missions offering, we raised $8,600 which was wonderful. Just think if we have even greater expectations for our missions offering this year. What if we exceed our expectations because God wants to work a miracle through us?
     Our expectations are related to our views on the true meaning of Christmas. Is Christmas about us or is it really about what God can accomplish in and through us? Is Christmas really just about going shopping or is it about bringing God’s light to where there is darkness? What sacrifices will we need to make so that the good news of Christmas will help others experience transformation in their lives?
     Christmas is about great expectations. It’s about a prophet who announces to a disheartened people that God will send a child who will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

     This year, let’s reclaim Christmas. May this season be a time where we allow God to use us to bring light to those who are in darkness.

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