Christmas is NOT over on December 26

It saddens me to see so few Christmas decorations around less than a week after Christmas (December 25). And most of you probably don’t even realize that just because the calendar says December 26, does not mean that Christmas is over. Our culture has drilled it into us for so long now that Christmas is over after December 25. On December 26 many stores begin “After-Christmas” sales, radio stations stop playing Christmas music and return to their regular programing, and most of the Christmas decorations in our homes and businesses begin getting packed up. But did you know that there are actually 12 Days of Christmas? It’s true! Christmas is not a day, it actually is 12 days. Christmas begins on December 25 and continuing into January; ending on January 5 (the 12th night). The 12 Days of Christmas is not just a fun song that is sung around Christmas time or even the parodies that have sprung up (my personal favorite is the Redneck 12 Days of Christmas). Nor do the 12 Days of Christmas begin on December 14 and end on December 25 (essentially ending Christmas on the 25th). No, the 12 Days of Christmas begin on December 25 and end on January 5. January 6 then is Epiphany.

Epiphany is the time/season in which we (the church) celebrate God revealing himself as a human in Jesus Christ. We celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 and then we celebrate the revealing of his true identity on January 6. Epiphany is also traditionally celebrated as when the Magi came to visit the Christ child. The church really doesn’t know when the Magi actually came to visit. All we know is that they came, visited and brought gifts to Jesus. But January 6 has long been the day the church has celebrated this event, so there’s no sense changing that.

At our home, we keep all of our Christmas decorations up and turned on through January 5. We turn our lights off and take our decorations down on January 6. Now whether you do this in your home or not, that is your decision to make. But at least you know the reason why there is a house in a small rural town that has its Christmas lights on through January 5.

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Christmas Eve – Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 9:6-7

Micah 5:2

Luke 2:1-20

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

For many, Christmas is a time that brings great joy – family members are returning home, we catch up with distant relatives that we don’t get to see very often, college students are home on break, and everyone is usually in a cheerful mood.  Maybe you got engaged or married in the last year and this is your first Christmas celebrating with both families.  Or you had a child and this is the baby’s first Christmas.  At home, the Christmas tree is lit, the traditional family meal can be smelled throughout the house, and people wait eagerly to see what are in those presents under the tree.

Except, for some this time of year is the hardest of all.  For some, this is the first Christmas without a parent or child or another close family member or friend.  For others there may have been an argument that has left your family in pieces or you’ve received troubling news from your doctor.  Your crops may not have done as good as you would like this fall, and so now you’re left with figuring out what you need to cut back on.  Maybe this is the first Christmas in which you are celebrating in a new location because grandma and grandpa can’t live in their house anymore.  For some, this is not a joyous time of year – it is the hardest time of year and people just look forward to this holiday being over.

Well, and if you look at the news it sure doesn’t feel like a joyous time of year.  We still have Ebola spreading in Africa, ISIS is still gaining ground in the Middle East, police officers getting attacked in the states, riots and protests are popping up all over the place.  There have been recent car accidents where teenagers have gotten injured or killed.  The Vikings are going to have another losing record this season.  And there are fewer and fewer young people throughout the world believing in God and attending church.  How can people possibly say that this is a joyous time of year?  Wherever we turn, there is bad news lurking in the shadows, just waiting to swallow us up.  And all we can really wonder is, “When will the bad news hit us?”  Worry and fear end up trumping our joy and happiness.

We get to a point where we just cry out to God, “Where are you, God?  Can’t you see we are suffering here?  Why won’t you just rip open the heavens and come down here in the mess and chaos of this world?  Don’t you care about us?”  Sometimes I feel this way about God.  I ask God, “Why can’t you just take the cancer and all other diseases away?  Or can’t you just protect our young people as they are learning how to drive?  And why can’t you take away the hurt and pain that families are faced with?”  But then the Christmas season comes around and I am reminded once again about what our God has done for us in the midst of this chaotic and messy world that we live in.  On that night when Jesus was born, God ripped open the heavens and came down to us.  You may have come here tonight because it is your tradition to do so, but tonight we are here to worship and give our praise to our God who has heard our cries for help and ripped open the heavens and has come down to us in the messy world we live in.  This God that you worship, is real and He humbled himself, stepping down from His throne to become just like one of His very own creatures.  Our God became human to know what it is like to be us.  Our God did not have to do any of this, He could have just left the world to fend for itself.  But because He loves you so much, He chose to start from the beginning – learning what it is like to be you.  Our God became an infant, born into this world – for YOU!  Jesus learned how to walk, He learned how to talk, and He learned just how messy and troubled this world really is because He witnessed it firsthand.  This world is so troubled that we would nail our own God to a tree and then laugh and mock at Him.  And then rejoice when He died.  But this God that we worship on this dark December night, can do anything, even death itself cannot control our God.  He could not stay dead.  He rose again to overcome the grave and forgive us all of any wrongs that we have done.  And Jesus did all of this, from being born as an infant, to dying on the cross, to rising from the dead, all because of the deep, unconditional love that He has for you!  You don’t deserve this love because you often forget about God, but Jesus loves you in spite of who you are!

Tonight and throughout this next year may we continue to worship, rejoice and give our praise and thanksgiving to God for hearing our cries for help, ripping open the heavens and coming into the mess of this world.  Jesus, the Christ child, was born this day in the city of David to save us from our sin, and to redeem the world from the troubles that it has.  Your Messiah has come as a child, to know your hurts and your pains.  And then Jesus took your hurts and your pains to the cross, nailing them on a tree in order to save you, redeem you, and give you everlasting life with God!  Praise be to our God, our Savior and Messiah!  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

4th Sunday in Advent – Sunday, December 21, 2014

Readings for the day:

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Luke 1:46b-55

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 1:26-38

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Christmas is coming!  But before we hear the words of that very familiar Christmas story about our Savior’s birth from the second chapter of Luke, we first hear two wonderful passages from the first chapter of Luke.  Today is the fourth and final Sunday in Advent.  We just heard the Annunciation, which is when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary giving her the message that she would bear a child.  And for our responsive Psalm this morning, we read the Magnificat or Mary’s Song.  This is the song that Mary sings after being told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear a child, and not just any child, but God’s child – God’s Son.

Mary, a teenager, engaged to be married to Joseph becomes perplexed and ponders the words from the angel Gabriel.  “How can this be, Mary asks, since I am a virgin?”[1]  When Zachariah is told that his wife is going to bear a child he asks how this can be in her old age and laughs.  Zachariah is then muted, unable to speak until his son, John, is born.  Mary on the other hand, when asking how this can be, a virgin, gets an explanation.  She is told that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her; therefore the child to be born will be holy, set apart from the rest, he will be called Son of God.[2]

Then the angel gives Mary proof that his words, which are coming from God, are true and will indeed happen.  The angel Gabriel says, “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.”[3]  Then probably the most important verse in this whole passage is said by the angel.  The angel says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”[4]  Nothing will be impossible with God!  Now after looking at the Greek, this really isn’t the best translation.  As it reads in English, nothing will be impossible with God, sounds like God does magic tricks or something; things that can’t be accounted for.  But our English translations leave off two important words that are in the Greek.  Those two words are – EVERY WORD.  So if we include these words in our English translation this verse would say, “For nothing will be impossible with God’s every word.”  Or maybe a little clearer, “For nothing will be impossible with all of God’s words.”

Now that means something!  Sure nothing is impossible with God, but God isn’t David Copperfield, Chris Angel or some magician.  He is the creator of the world.  When He speaks, things happen!  It is God’s Word that makes all things possible.  When God spoke, the world came into being.  When God spoke again, Moses was leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land.  And when God spoke, Elizabeth and Mary became pregnant and each would soon bear a child.  There is great power in God’s Word.  When He speaks, things happen!

If you don’t believe me, look at our sacraments, baptism and communion.  In baptism, we are claimed by God, washed clean of our sins, and given the promise of eternal life with God.  But how can water do all of that?  Water is just water after all!  Water, on its own cannot do any of this, but water with God’s Word does give us these promises.  Without the word of God the water is simply water and no baptism.  But with the word of God it is a baptism, which is life giving water poured over us.

Likewise, with Holy Communion, how can a little wafer (made out of water a flour) possibly give you nourishment for your day?  Or how can a little shot of wine possibly quench your thirst?  They can’t!  But when you eat and drink and hear the words given and shed for you, you can know that you are receiving Christ and receiving forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal life with God.  Bread and wine can’t do this on their own, but with God’s Word, nothing is impossible with God.

You see, when God speaks, things happen.  When water is poured over a child’s head and God speaks, the child is claimed by God.  When you hold out your hand and eat that tasteless wafer or drink that little cup of wine and God speaks, you receive God’s forgiveness of sins.

Nothing will be impossible with God’s Word.  How else do you think that a teenage girl became the mother to the savior of the world?  Or how could she possibly sing that beautiful song after receiving that word from God?  Because she had faith that when God’s speaks, things will happen as they say.  God told Mary that she was to bear a child and he would be great.  Mary proclaims that God has brought himself, the powerful, down from his throne by coming into the world as an infant.  He has done this to lift up the lowly, all of the sinners – you and me!  God didn’t have to do any of this.  He could have just had Jesus just die on the cross to save the world, but instead he wanted to gain our trust and show us just how much he loves his children.  So he works through Mary and Joseph, a simply, humble, little family.  He learns what it is like to be one of his own creatures all to save the world.  Sure, nothing is impossible with God.  When God speaks, things do indeed happen – babies are born, the sun rises in the east, people are claimed through the waters of baptism, and we all are nourished through bread and wine.  Jesus is coming because nothing is impossible when God speaks!  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] Luke 1:34, NRSV

[2] Luke 1:35, NRSV

[3] Luke 1:36, NRSV

[4] Luke 1:37, NRSV

3rd Sunday in Advent – Sunday, December 14, 2014

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Psalm 126

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Before I was ordained, I recall a pastor telling me that when he flies, he never tells the person he is sitting next to that he is a pastor.  I was baffled by this; a pastor that lies!  So he corrected me and said that he wouldn’t lie to the person, but if they asked what he did, he would tell them that he worked in human relations.  Which I guess is partially true, but still actually lying.  But now he had his reasons for not wanting to tell the person on the plane that he actually was a pastor (especially if it was a long flight) because usually (in his experience) the person sitting next to him would talk his ear off for the remainder of the flight.  And I thought this was so strange.  Why wouldn’t you want to be a witness and help spread the gospel to others?

Well, I got my opportunity to find out for myself.  Since I’ve been ordained, I have been on a few flights.  One flight in particular stands out.  I had a window seat and there was a lady sitting next to me.  I had brought my tablet along, planning on doing some work on a few things including an upcoming sermon.  The flight was scheduled to last about 3 hours.  I figured I could get some good work done over the next couple of hours.  But of course no mobile devices can be turned on until the plane reaches 10,000 feet.  So the lady next to me begins a conversation with me.

Shortly after takeoff, she tells me what her occupation is and then asks me what I do.  The conversation with this pastor pops into my head.  What do I say to her?  The truth?  Do I lie?  I do have work to do after all.  My response was, “I’m a pastor.”  And oh my, was that pastor right!  For the next 3 hours we talked about work, family, places we’ve traveled to, going to church, growing up in the church, our beliefs in God, and what happens when we die (she was traveling to go to the funeral of a friend’s parent).  I ended up not getting any work done throughout that entire flight.  But you know, if I would have simply said that I worked in public relations or even ignored her, I would have gotten my work done and wouldn’t have spent those 3 hours listening to a stranger’s story.

What if John the Baptist would have ignored his calling to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness?  Then Jesus would not have had a crowd of followers, which would mean that the Pharisees would not have gotten upset nor have demanded Jesus to be killed.  What if the prophet Isaiah would have ignored his calling to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim the Lord’s favor?  Then the Israelites would have never been told of the coming Messiah.  They would have never heard words of hope that one day they would no longer be exiled.  What if the Apostle Paul would have ignored his calling to rejoice always, to give thanks in all circumstances and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ?  Then the Gentiles (the non-Jews – so US) would have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ.  This would have only been a Jewish thing.  There would be no Christianity.  Our church is where it is today because the people before us listened to their calling from God to proclaim the good news, to be a witness, to tell their story.

Today, our faith and religion in general is viewed as a private matter, not a public one.  No organized prayer in schools, no religious education outside of the church, students have to choose between going to practice or coming to church and if they pick church then they can’t play.  Society is pushing religion to be private, but our faith can’t be private – it has to be public!  The message that John was giving (the voice of one crying out in the wilderness) would not have been heard if he wanted to keep it private.

Today we are also faced with huge questions of uncertainty with our faith.  Many of our foundational beliefs are being put into question.  What can we be certain of anymore?  Our culture tells us that the only thing we can be certain of is the present; the time period that we are living in right now!

John’s message, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”[1] was certainly a message to the Israelites of his time, but it is also a message for us still today.  Remember, Advent is the season where we prepare for Christ’s coming; God becoming flesh in the form of a baby.  But it is also to prepare ourselves for Christ to come again.  He has indeed promised us that He will return and so we need to “make straight the way of the Lord.”  We do this by doing what John did, keeping our faith public, not private.  Don’t internalize your faith, speak up, be bold.  Don’t be ashamed to say what you believe or in my case, to say that I’m a pastor.  After all, if you believe that Jesus is coming back, why wouldn’t you tell others about it?  Why wouldn’t you share this good news with other people?  We also do this by holding on to the one thing of our faith that we know is certain, that has spanned the centuries – God’s Word!  When everything in our world is getting put into question, we can rely on God’s Word because it is true.

So, prepare the way of the Lord, for he is coming, yes at Christmas where we again rejoice that God took on flesh to live among us.  But also to prepare for the Lord will be coming again and we want to be ready.  We prepare by holding on to God’s Word which is truth.  We prepare by sharing this truth with others.  We prepare by pointing others to Christ.  If we don’t heed the Baptist’s cry, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” then we may not be ready when the Lord returns.

Whether this all matters to you or not, the reality is that the Good Shepherd is coming and when He does He will call and gather all of His sheep – that’s you!  He will gather you because at your baptism you were, as Isaiah says, “clothed with the garments of salvation, covered with the robe of righteousness.”[2]  At your baptism you were marked by Christ and when He does return He will bring you into His flock.  God has promised that He will indeed remain faithful and so you can be publicly certain that Christ will be coming back for you!  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”[3]  Jesus is coming!  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] John 1:23, NRSV

[2] Isaiah 61:10, NRSV

[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NRSV