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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaim Christmas"

     Over the past several Sundays, we have been focusing on the theme of “Reclaiming Christmas.” This theme might remind you of some other similar sayings we hear around this time of year like, “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
     Some Christians get really bent out of shape with the person working the cash register who tells her customers, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  I really think we need to cut these cashiers some slack because the word “holiday” literally means “holy day” anyway.
     They may think they’re being politically correct, but we know better. Let’s just keep this our little secret. By reclaiming Christmas, I don’t mean that we should rebuke cashiers for simply doing what they’ve been trained to do.  It also doesn’t mean that we need to get too worried when people say “X-mas” instead of the full word, “Christmas.”
     Christians have been calling it “X-mas” for the past several centuries. The letter “x” is a symbol of the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” So actually, anyone who spells out “Christmas” as “X-mas” is including “Christ” in “Christmas” even if they don’t realize it.
     If the phrase, “reclaiming Christmas” isn’t just about reacting against political correctness, then what does this phrase really mean for us as we gather for this “X-mas Eve service?” Christmas is one of those holidays where we can easily lose sight of its true meaning. This is why it’s a tradition in the church to read and hear the nativity story each year as told by St. Luke.
     “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”  Wait a minute. That’s not it. Here it is.
     “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” And so, this is how the Christmas story begins. It begins with a reminder to file your tax return.
     Now, this was NOT the Roman Empire’s way of offering a friendly reminder to take advantage of any end of year tax breaks. With Rome, there were no tax extensions, not even for women who were nine months pregnant and who lived a hundred miles from the nearest tax billing office.
     Reclaiming Christmas is to remember that like Mary and Joseph, we are called to live our faith in the real world of tax deadlines, politics, and untimely business trips. It would be nice if our faith could be lived under ideal situations where everything goes as planned. It doesn’t always work that way. In fact, it often doesn’t. What is that famous quote? If you want God to laugh, just tell him your plans.
     As I think back on my pastoral years of ministry, I can think of many times that God has probably laughed at my carefully laid out plans. You know, we pastors have this utopian picture in our minds of how we want things to go for a worship service or an event in the church.
     Here’s just one example among many of when things didn’t go as planned. Many of you will never let me forget this one. You are still talking about even though it happened five years ago.
     It was my first Mother’s Day Sunday here with you, my first year as your pastor. It was also confirmation Sunday when about twenty seventh graders were being received into membership. This place was packed, almost as crowded as it is tonight.
     Since this was my first year here, I was still trying to impress you with my outstanding pastoral abilities. I remember working extra hard on the sermon for that special Sunday. For pastors, we need to really hit it out of the park on Mother’s Day, Easter,  and Christmas Eve, in that order.
     I had my Mother’s Day sermon all ready to go.  Emotional story about my mother. Check. Encouraging story of faith for our confirmands. Check. Powerful ending to make it memorable. Check. It really felt like it was going to be a special day. You were going to be so impressed!
     After we confirmed all of those confirmands, it was finally time for me to deliver my carefully crafted sermon. As I just started to speak, I remember becoming very light headed and that’s the last thing I remember before I fainted.
     One of you would later tell me that my face had turned yellow. Some said it was more greenish. Either way, not good.
     As I was being helped out of the sanctuary in the middle of that worship service, I remember one of the confirmands who was sitting in the first pew ask, “Is he dead?”
     So those are pretty much the highlights from that big Sunday with you. It didn’t exactly go as I had planned.
     You know, that’s just the way it is with our faith sometimes. In fact, that’s often the way it is with our faith. We don’t always know the challenges and the adversities that are going to come our way. Sometimes, we wonder if we can handle all that life might throw our way.
     This was the situation Mary and Joseph faced in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. I’m pretty sure that when Mary and Joseph were planning for their baby to be born, that they weren’t thinking about making a very inconvenient one hundred mile trip to pay taxes or having their baby be born in a feed trough because there was no room in the inn.
     It’s OK to plan ahead and prepare as much as we can, as long as we realize that there will be some detours along the way. Reclaiming Christmas is about trusting in God especially during those times when things don’t go as expected. God promises to be with us through all of the ups and downs of life.
     There’s a wonderful verse in the bible that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” That’s a great verse to memorize as we seek to reclaim Christmas and live out our faith this coming year.
      After the candles are extinguished and the last verse of “Joy to the World” is sung, know that God promises to go with you and will never leave or forsake you even as we live in the real world. Yes, we will face unexpected challenges and adversities in the midst of our carefully laid out plans, but always remember that, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
     To reclaim Christmas means to remember that just like Mary and Joseph, we are called to trust in God especially as we face unforeseen challenges that may come our way and they will come. That’s life.
     There’s another wonderful thing for us to remember about Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Not only does it remind us that we are called to trust in God as we live out our faith in the real world. It also reminds us that the good news of Christmas offers us great joy and transformation.
     I love the part about the shepherds in the Christmas story. The shepherds were the first people to hear of the good news of Christ’s birth. Here they were out in the fields doing their job of tending sheep when they encountered something that would change their lives forever.
     Angels appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and announced the good news of Christ’s birth. The angels announced that this was wonderful and joyous news for all people.
     “For all people” is an important phrase to remember because the shepherds were not known to be religious people. They were considered people who were on the outside and yet God chose to first announce the good news of Christ’s birth to them.
     After going to Bethlehem to confirm what they had been told by the angels, Luke tells us that they then returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Reclaiming Christmas means that the good news of Christ’s birth will not leave us the same. It will transform us. It will lead us to praise God.
     There are signs of reclaiming Christmas all around us. This past fall, I was having a conversation with a pastor of a small country church. He’s retired but has been serving this church part-time over the past four or five years.
     About a year ago, he was getting really discouraged because the church hadn’t baptized anyone or received anyone into membership during these past few years. He began to think that maybe it was time for him to retire once and for all.
     He decided to send a letter to his small congregation this past June that expressed his feelings that maybe he wasn’t the right pastor for their church. He explained that they weren’t reaching people for Christ and that maybe it was time for a pastoral change even though he enjoyed preaching.
     So I asked him, “So what happened? How did they respond?” With a surprised look in his face he said, “Believe it or not, that one letter has ignited a revival in my little church. Since that letter, I have baptized three adults, a baby, received five new members into the church, and the people are wanting to share their faith with others and they’re starting to reach out.”
     After he shared this with me, he shook his head in disbelief and said, “I guess I’m not going to retire. God still has more work for me to do.”
     Reclaiming Christmas means that we join the shepherds in a revival of transformation that will not only transform our lives but will have a ripple effect on the people around us.
     Over the past several weeks, our church has been thinking and praying about what it means to reclaim Christmas here at First United Methodist Church. I want to share some of the ways you have been reclaiming Christmas and offering God’s transforming love to our community and world.
     A year and a half ago, our church accepted a pretty big challenge from our West Ohio Conference to give $25,000 over a three-year period toward Imagine No Malaria. Our gifts help to buy mosquito nets to protect children in Africa from the deadly but preventable disease of malaria.
     We almost decided to not accept that challenge because of several other financial commitments that we were facing as a congregation. But after praying about it, we stepped out in faith and made a commitment to raise the $25,000 over three years.
     Friends, even though we are only half way through our three year pledge, it looks like we will make that goal a year and a half early! We will be sending the remaining portion of our $25,000 commitment to Imagine No Malaria in early January. Way to go First United Methodist Church!
     But that’s not all. Thanks to your generosity, you provided several Christmas presents for thirteen needy families here in Lancaster. May that warm our hearts when we wake up on Christmas morning.
     Many of you know about our Local Relief Fund that we use to help people who are going through difficult times. It used to be called the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund, same fund, new name. We have given a total of $22,236 toward this fund this year, almost $4,000 more than we did the previous year.
     Every time we are generous in sharing God’s love with our community and world, we are reclaiming Christmas! And that’s worth celebrating!
    As we leave from this place tonight, may the good news of Christ’s birth lead us to glorify and praise God, just like the shepherds did so long ago.

     Merry Christmas!

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