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 26, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Christmas Eve) Athens First UMC

[We celebrated our first Christmas Eve back in our sanctuary since a major church remodeling that was happening around this time last year. A year ago, we needed to worship in our Fellowship Hall for the candlelight service. During those five months of remodeling when we couldn't use our sanctuary, we learned to adjust to the situation knowing that God had big plans for our church. In addition to this candlelight service in the picture above, the Holy Hands Puppeteers led us in a fun glow stick Christmas Eve service also held in our sanctuary. Below is a picture of their skit, "Santa's Gift." Click here for the sermon.]

Loving God, we have already received many gifts these past several days.

I’m thankful for the Christmas candy someone gave me for my office candy dish, for the white elephant gift I received at our staff Christmas party, for the bag of peppermint chocolate candy, for the fun gift cards, and especially, especially, especially, for the homemade cinnamon rolls that had lots of icing on top.

O God, thank you for this fun time of year when we give each other these fun Christmas gifts to show our appreciation. Most importantly, in this season of gift giving, thank you for giving us the greatest gift we can ever receive, the gift of your Christ Child.

May the gift of the Christ Child transform our hearts and our minds to become more like you.

May the gift of the Christ Child bring peace to a very troubled world that is filled with threats of war, famine, and oppression.

May the gift of the Christ Child open our eyes to the beauty that is in our world.

May the gift of the Christ Child empower us to live out our faith through our words and our actions.

May the gift of the Christ Child unite us in spite of our many differences.

May the gift of the Christ Child bring healing and wholeness to those who are ill.

May the gift of the Christ Child bring hope to those who are in despair.

May the gift of the Christ Child be present with us now even as we pray

Our Father, who art in heaven…

[A picture from the Holy Hands Puppeteers' skit, "Santa's Gift" at our early Christmas Eve service where we used glow sticks instead of wax candles.]

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Open the Gift of the Christ Child"

     I want to draw your attention to the large Christmas box that is up here by our altar.  Each Sunday during the month of December, we have opened a new Christmas gift based on different characters from the nativity display that we have been placing on the altar.

     We first opened the gift of expectation.  And the symbol for this Christmas gift is Mary, the mother of Jesus.  For those months of her pregnancy, Mary was filled with the expectancy that God’s promises for Israel and for the whole world were about to be fulfilled through the birth of her son.  This gift of expectancy is what prompts us to look for signs of God’s kingdom through our day to living.  It makes a difference in our lives when we know that God is at work in the world in new and exciting ways.

     The second Christmas gift we opened was the gift of acceptance.  The symbol for this gift is Joseph.  God was asking a lot from Joseph.  Joseph had been busy making wedding plans and all of the sudden he needed to accept a new reality that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit.  This was a lot for Joseph to accept in a short amount of time, especially since he knew that nobody would believe him.

     When we receive the Christmas gift of acceptance, like Joseph we sometimes just need to accept the reality of the situation we are facing as well as how other people will respond.  We can accept our present reality when we know that God is with us even when we may feel alone.

     Then we opened up the Christmas gift of family.  The shepherds are the symbol for this gift.  They were the unexpected guests at the manger scene since they were viewed as outcasts in their society.  God chose to include the unlikeliest of people to gather around the manger there in Bethlehem.

     Whenever we feel outside of God’s family, it’s so good to know that God’s invitation is always being extended to us.  A while back, a church member wrote these words about what makes the church special.

     “My beloved church is always there whether I’m there or not.  No matter how long I’m gone or how quickly I return, the door is always open.”

     The shepherds remind us that God’s door is always open.  There is always room for us.  Shepherds symbolize the gift of family.

     And then this morning during our 4th Sunday of Advent services, the Christmas gift that we opened was a mirror.  It was a mirror because we are the gift.  The innkeeper who isn’t even part of the manger scene, symbolizes this gift because we’re not sure whatever happened to this person.  Sometimes we get so busy preparing for Christmas that we forget to see ourselves as part of the manger scene.  Christmas is about opening the gift of yourself.

     So these are the four Christmas gifts so far in the month of December – the gift of expectation, the gift of acceptance, the gift of family, and the gift of yourself.  But we do have one more gift to take out of the Christmas box.

     I need a volunteer who is willing to open the gift tonight on our behalf.

(Opening of the Gift)

     The gift is the Christ Child!

     The nativity display wouldn’t be complete without baby Jesus in the manger.  Yes, this is the gift for us to receive.  The gift of Jesus is why Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the innkeeper found themselves together in the little town of Bethlehem on that holy night.  And the gift of Jesus is what has brought us here tonight.  It’s a gift that we are invited to receive in a new way every Christmas.  It’s a gift that is meant to be opened again and again and again.

     For a little girl named Jessica, it was a perfect Christmas.  She got every single gift she wanted.  Her favorite cousins were there to share the holiday with her.  She had eaten her favorite foods all day long.  As her mother tucked her in for bed, she looked up and smiled and said, “Mom, I sure hope Mary and Joseph have another baby next year.”

     The gift of the Christ Child is meant to be opened not once, but every year.  Why else do we decorate our homes and set up the nativity display each year?  It’s because we know deep down that there is something very special about this gift that God is offering to us.  We want it to last and to be with us always.

     Speaking of Christmas presents, I received a really nice present one year.

     A lot of you remember the electric football game, 1970’s style, right?  It was so much better than today’s Madden NFL.  So much better!  Those of you who are in your 40s and 50s know what I mean.  Did you have an electric football game when you were growing up?
     It was awesome!  The technology on that thing was genius.  With a flick of the switch, your carefully lined up tiny players would vibrate on this metallic surface.  But the players would never ever go in the direction that you had them pointed. It was a miracle if the player went five yards in the correct direction.

     All it took was the slightest piece of dust or fuzz on that sheet of metal and your prize running back would turn a promising fifteen-yard gain into a gut-wrenching thirty-yard loss.  It was sooo frustrating.  Lucky was the kid, who ever had a plastic player vibrate straight down the field for a touchdown. 

     I remember one time, my little running back man made it all the way to the one yard line, which in reality was literally three millimeters and something caused him to do a 180 and run the whole way to the other end zone for a safety. It was the worst feeling in the world.  In that regard, Madden NFL is a lot better!

     So anyway, Santa gave me this electric football game for Christmas one year.  I was so happy.  Best Christmas present ever!  My brother and I played it all day on Christmas.  The next day, the day after Christmas, my neighbor came over and we were playing with my electric football game.  And you won’t believe what happened.

     My little vibrating plastic man went the entire length of the field and scored a touchdown.  He never turned around.  Nothing stopped him.  He avoided every single piece of lint and fuzz between him and the end zone.  He went like Chris Berman says, “HE –WENT-ALL-THE-WAY!”

     To celebrate this once in a lifetime achievement, I did a handstand next to the field, but I couldn’t keep my balance.  I flipped over and my body landed on my new electric football game.  I put a dent near the sideline around the forty yard line.  I was never so crushed in my life!  I could still play a game on it, but if the players were anywhere near that side of the field, the gravity would pull them into this dent every single time.  I tried to fix it by pushing up the dent from underneath the field, but then the players couldn’t make it over the little hill that was formed.

     My favorite Christmas present was broken.  My favorite Christmas gift ever was broken. But when I was in my twenties, my brother came to visit us for Christmas one year.  And guess what he gave me for Christmas that year?  A brand new electric football game, just like the one that I had damaged so many Christmases ago. 

    Christmas is a time to remember that God specializes in making all things new.  God is more than able to take the dents and the brokenness of our lives and give us a new future.  Old Christmas gifts can be transformed and made new.  We can be made new.  Every Christmas is a time to receive God’s gifts of new life.

     Like Mary, we can receive the gift of expectation.  Like Joseph, we can receive the gift of acceptance.  Like the shepherds, we can receive the gift of family.  And like the innkeeper, we can receive the gift of ourselves and take our place around the manger scene.

     And tonight, we are invited to receive the gift of the Christ Child. Picture yourself around the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.  As you look upon this baby, what will your response be to this wonderful gift that God is offering us tonight?

     Years ago, a young man was riding a bus from Chicago to Miami.  He had a stop-over in Atlanta.  While he was sitting at the lunch counter, a woman came out of the lady’s rest room carrying a tiny baby.  She walked up to this man and asked, “Would you hold my baby for me? I left my purse in the rest room.”

      He did.  But as the woman neared the front door of the bus station, she darted out into the crowded street and was immediately lost in the crowd.

     When he finally calmed down, he went to the Traveler’s Aid booth and together with the local police, they soon found the child’s mother.  The woman who had left him holding the baby wasn’t the baby’s biological mother. She had taken the child from someone.  Maybe she took the baby to satisfy some motherly urge to hold a child or something else.  No one really knows.  But we do know that this man breathed a sigh of relief when this baby’s mother was found.  After all, what was he going to do with a baby?

     In a way, we’re all in the same sort of situation as this young man.  Every Christmas, we’re invited to hold this baby.  The Christ Child is placed in our arms.  And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do with this baby?”

     It’s Christmas.  It’s time to open our gifts and be made new.


Sermon (December 24/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Open the Gift of Yourself"

     Throughout this Advent Season, we have been opening a new Christmas present each Sunday.  We’ve opened a lot of gifts already; the gift of expectation, the gift of acceptance, and last Sunday, we opened the gift of family.

     For today, let’s have a volunteer come forward and open the Christmas box.

     Let’s see what is in the beautiful Christmas box for today. It’s probably going to be one of the best gifts since tomorrow is Christmas!  What’s in the box?

(Opening of Christmas Box)

     It's a mirror! This must mean that we are the gift. We belong at the manger scene!

     Turn to someone near you and say, “You’re the gift.”

     Yes, you are the gift for this Sunday!  We have been pulling out a different nativity display each week to symbolize the Christmas gift, but for this week, I realized that you don’t often see the innkeeper in the crèche scene. 
     In many ways, the innkeeper represents you and me in the Christmas story.   Sometimes in the busyness of the Christmas season and running around trying to think of everybody else, we forget that we’re part of the Christmas story too. 

     We heard a little about the innkeeper during our Advent candle lighting earlier in the service.  Well the truth is, the scriptures don’t have a whole lot to tell us about this person.  All we know is that there was no room in the inn. 

     Instead, Mary and Joseph had only one option on that first Christmas Eve.  They had to lodge where the animals were kept at night.  Mary and Joseph would have probably had to use their own robes and extra blankets just to keep warm.

     Sometimes I wonder if we brush aside the innkeeper in the Christmas story since we are told that there wasn’t any room for Mary and Joseph that night.  There is no indication in the story that the innkeeper had any idea about the holy child inside Mary’s womb.

     So what happened to the innkeeper in the Christmas story?  We don’t know.  But the more I think about whoever this person was, the more I think that this person represents you and me in the Christmas story.

     This innkeeper was right there.  I mean, he was right there with Mary and Joseph on that holy night.  Physically, he was as close as anyone to the holy family, but we’re not sure how close he was in a spiritual sense.

     One summer, I was driving through a trendy section of a community near Columbus.  It was around lunch time and I decided to find a parking spot and try out one of the restaurants on that block.
     As I was enjoying my lunch, I remembered that a good friend of mine was serving as pastor of a United Methodist church somewhere in that community.  And so, after lunch, I started walking to my car which was parked by a building next to the restaurant.
     I got in my car and as I started to pull out from my parking space, it suddenly dawned on me.  The building next to my car kind of looked like a church.  And sure enough, it was.  It was my friend’s church.  During my lunch, I was only about twenty feet away.  I was right next to it the whole time!  I was so close to missing it even though it was just one door away!

     How can we be so close to something and yet be so far away?  This story has a good ending because my friend happened to be in his office that day.  He gave me a tour of the church, we had a great conversation, and we ended our time by praying for each other. That visit became a holy moment for me.  I left feeling renewed and encouraged.

     Sometimes, we can be right next to something that is holy and can make a difference in our lives, but unless we open the gift, we can miss out on what God wants to give us.  I think this is true of Christmas.  We can be this close to Christmas and it can be happening all around us, but until we open ourselves in this season, we can miss it.

     The innkeeper was as close as you can get to Christmas.  The birth of Jesus happened right there in his own home.  I wonder if this innkeeper ever realized that this holy moment was meant for him as well.

     The innkeeper helps us to think about ourselves on this Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Sometimes, we remember everybody else at Christmas time except ourselves and our own need to receive the gift of Jesus’ birth.  The innkeeper may not be in the crèche scene, but he was part of the Christmas story.

     Do you see yourself in the Christmas story?  Or do you see Christmas as only something that is meant for everyone else and not for you in a personal way?
     There’s a United Methodist Church out in California that came up with a creative way to help everyone in the church and their community feel part of the Christmas story.  Let’s watch.

      We’re all part of the Christmas story, each and every one of us, including the innkeeper, especially the innkeeper.

     There was once a Christmas pageant at a small church in which the part of the innkeeper at Bethlehem was played by a high school student.  He was a quiet and polite boy, but the kind of boy who was a little awkward – in his manner, in his social relationships, and even physically since his growing frame made it difficult for him to find any clothes that fit.

     When Mary and Joseph appeared at the inn, he stood…awkwardly…in the doorway, slumping a bit toward the couple as they made their request for lodging.  He then dutifully recited his one and only line, “There is no room in the inn.”

     But as Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away toward the cattle stall where they would spend the night, the boy continued to watch them with eyes filled with deep compassion. Suddenly responding to a grace which, though not part of the script, he startled himself, the holy couple, and the audience by calling out, “Wait a minute.  Don’t go.  You can have my room!”

     By adding this extra line to the play, this boy reminds us that we all have an important part to play in the nativity scene.  God invites each one of us to participate in the Christmas story in a very real way.  Even the innkeeper can go off script and say, “Wait a minute.  Don’t go.  You can have my room.”

     In the Christmas story, nobody is left out.  Even the innkeeper can take more of a leading role.    

     Let’s do this one more time.  Turn to a different person this time and say, “You’re the gift.”

     You’re the gift on this fourth Sunday of Advent.  Of all the gifts that you wrap and open this year, don’t forget to open up yourself and invite Jesus to live in the room of your heart.

     I’d like to offer three important thoughts on making sure that we don’t forget to take ourselves out of the Christmas box this Christmas.

Slow Down

     The first way is by slowing down.  Easier said than done, right?  “Today is Christmas Eve.  What do you mean, slow down?”  I know.  It almost seems impossible to slow down in our frantic culture.  Not too many people are slowing down during this busy time of year.  But it’s necessary if we want to receive the gift of Jesus Christ in our own hearts.  When was the last time you spent time praying in a chapel or in a place where it was just you and God?

     I came across this post on Facebook. A friend of mine who serves as a pastor posted these words one day:  “On Saturday mornings I work in the office and spend time in the sanctuary praying and, when it’s my turn to preach, practicing the sermon.  Some years ago a serious inquirer asked me, ‘Ed, what do you do with yourself all week long?’ Well, the answer isn’t what any of us do all week long, it’s more like ‘anything God wants to do with us!’”

     Slowing down and being still and experiencing the presence of God is the first way for us to personally receive the gift of Christmas this year.

Know What Is Important

     The second thing is to know what is and what is not important.  That’s not always easy to do.  Especially during the holidays, we can easily make the little things outweigh the more important things.  Don’t worry about trying to have a perfect Christmas this year.  Instead, focus on celebrating the perfect Savior.

A Personal Daily Devotional Time

     Slow down.  Know what is and what is not important. And last but not least, here’s a third way to help us not forget that we are a gift that is meant to be opened this Christmas.  Have a personal daily devotional time which includes prayer and a scripture focus.  Allow these daily routines of scripture and prayer to be how you center yourself during this holy season.  It’s a way for us to take a deep breath and soak in the meaning of this holy season.

     I wonder how the innkeeper reacted to the birth of Christ.  Did he welcome all the attention and the extra guests who came to see the newborn King?  Or was it more of an inconvenience to have those shepherds and onlookers stop by to see what was happening?  Did it have an impact on him personally or was this all something that he would soon forget. We don’t really know what happened to that innkeeper.

     Just remember, you and I have a part in the Christmas story as well.  This Christmas, may we each say, “Wait a minute.  Don’t go.  You can have my room.”

Open the Gift of Yourself
Discussion Questions
Micah 5:2-5a & Luke 1:26-38
December 24, 2017 (4th Sunday of Advent)

Today's gift that we take out of the box on this 4th Sunday of Advent is the inn keeper who is usually not included in any of the manger scenes. The inn keeper symbolizes you and me. We don't know a whole lot about the inn keeper from the Christmas story, but we do know that he was not that far away from the miracle of Christ's birth. 

Do you see yourself in the Christmas story?  Or do you see Christmas as only something that is meant for everyone else and not for you in a personal way?

Pastor Robert shared about a children's Christmas pageant in which the inn keeper went off script. As Mary and Joseph were about to leave after hearing there was no room for them, the little boy who was playing the part of the inn keeper said, "Wait a minute! You can have my room!"

Like the little boy who added the line in the Christmas play, how can we make room for the Christ Child to be born in us?

Pastor Robert shared three ways that we can open the gift of ourselves this Christmas. These include 1) slowing down 2) remembering what is most important this Christmas season and 3) having a personal daily devotional time.

Which of these three ways of opening the gift of ourselves do you want to focus on this Christmas season. Remember, the Christmas season lasts twelve days from Christmas Eve through January 6 (Epiphany.)