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Monday, December 22, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:

Nativity of the Lord – Proper I (December 24, 2014):  Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96:1-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

Nativity of the Lord – Proper II (December 24, 2014):  Isaiah 62:1-12, Psalm 97:1-12, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-20

Nativity of the Lord – Proper III (December 24:2014):  Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98:1-9, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14

First Sunday after Christmas:  Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148:1-14, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40

 

This week I’m inviting us into a conversation about Christmas stories.  Some of us might want to look at stories about our Christmas memories.  Why are they significant?  What do they mean?  Then there are the stories in scripture about Jesus’ birth.  They are told from various perspectives, using a variety of images.  As time passed the stories sometimes turned into theological statements as Paul and others tried to express the meaning they found in this child, and the adult he became.  We are part of that continuing process, so looking at the stories we tell may include various stories about the significance of the meaning of Jesus in our own lives.  What are the Christmas stories we tell?

 

First, a story about a childhood memory of Christmas.  In our family, clothes were passed down from cousin to cousin.  When one of my cousins no longer fit into a shirt, say, it came to me.  I wore it awhile until it was passed on to a still younger cousin.  Lots of clothing, of course, never survived more than one transfer, if it made it that far.  I remember one Christmas I received my first dress suit as a gift, something seemingly beyond the reach or thought of a family in our financial situation.  My first question was, “Whose was it?”  It was inconceivable to me that it was new, but, in this case, the inconceivable became reality.  Why is this story significant?  What does it mean?  I suppose I cling to it partly as a reminder of the humble circumstances in which I was reared, of the network of family sharing in which I participated, and of the sacrificial generosity of my parents.  It doesn’t take much examination to notice the deeper truths it contains.  It’s a story of heritage, of gift giving, of love, of surprising newness, of realities that stretch our way of looking at things, etc.  All those elements have been associated with Christmas, the story of Jesus, and the theology and practice of Christianity.

 

Now, the biblical stories.  In some traditions there are a number of “Christmas” occasions of worship---as many as four on Christmas Eve (including one at midnight) and Christmas Day, as well as the two Sundays following.  Not coming from that tradition, I don’t fully understand the significance of the three sets of scripture for The Nativity of the Lord.  Whatever their meaning, they give us a variety of stories about Jesus, as well as Old Testament texts many have associated with him.  In this season, they all become “Christmas” stories for us, providing various perspectives on the meaning of this season and person at its center.

 

Luke, who regularly notices the outcasts and the lowly, tells us about a young girl who becomes pregnant in a mysterious (many would have thought “improper”) way and is now on her way to Bethlehem with the man who has married her despite the scandal.  The whole story underlines the humble origins in which love can be found.  The story tells us there isn’t even a hotel room available and Joseph and Mary certainly didn’t make reservations.  They end up in a cave or stable where their newborn son is placed in a manger, with the assumption (although not recorded) of smelly (and perhaps cute) animals all around.  (Luke 2:4-7)

 

The whole thing, of course, is set in the context of the power of Rome and the taxes it demanded of these poor folk.  (vss. 1-3)

 

Then there are angels and shepherds.  No announcement to kings here.  Instead “good news of great joy” comes to lowly shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  The seeds of revolution are planted; the promise of the prophets who represented a God of peace and justice rises again.  (vss. 8-14)

 

The reading for the First Sunday after Christmas continues the story with the baby being presented in the temple.  (vss. 22-24)  Simeon takes him in his arms, speaking of this child as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel . . . destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.”  He will be opposed and Mary’s soul will experience agony.  (vss. 28-36)  Anna also speaks about the child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  (vss. 36-38)  We are left with a picture of a child “who grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”  (vs. 40)

 

In this story we have something great arising from humble circumstance, one who is to fulfill the hopes of many.  His birth rekindles visions of inclusion, justice and peace, the powerful being overthrown.  This birth is a sign of God’s favor at work among those who struggle in the midst of oppression.

 

Another reading for The Nativity of the Lord comes from the Gospel According to John, in which Jesus is seen as “The Word” with God from the very beginning.  In fact, “the Word was God.”  (John 1:1-3)  This Word “became flesh and lived among us,” full of grace and truth, showing forth God’s glory.  (vs. 14)  He is light that shines in the darkness and cannot be extinguished.  (vss. 4-9)  He offers the “power to become children of God.”  (vss. 11-13)

 

In this story we have one who puts us in touch with eternal power, makes us family, shines light on our lives and world.  It is all available right where we live---“among us.”  It’s still a story of humility and power, but quite a different take with different metaphors.

 

Then there’s Isaiah.  The church of my younger years majored in the misguided effort to see Jesus in every verse of the Old Testament.  My perspective now says that Isaiah and those who wrote in his name were not directly speaking about Jesus.  They were more likely talking about circumstances and kings and nations in their own time.  It is true that their visions contributed to understandings of a hoped-for Messiah (anointed king), some of which were applied, by early followers, to Jesus.  They have become part of the way in which we continue to tell the story of Jesus.

 

In the lectionary readings we find light in darkness (Isaiah 9:20).  We find joy as the oppressor is brought down.  (vss. 3-5)  We are introduced to a child who “is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” one who will bring “endless peace . . . with justice and with righteousness.”  (vss. 6-7)  His invitation is “Go through, go through the gates, prepare the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones . . . See, your salvation comes . . .”  (Isaiah 62:10-11)  We are told about the beautiful feet of a messenger who “announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” who says, “Your God reigns.”  (Isaiah 52:7)  It is occasion for joyful singing.  (vss. 8-9)

 

The Isaiah reading for the First Sunday after Christmas uses the metaphors of clothing and gardening.  “ . . . he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”  (Isaiah 61:10-11)Isaiah4, 8-11, Psalm 1salm 126:o

 

When we use these readings in our telling of the Christmas story, we tell the story of a king, made most explicit perhaps in the Isaiah 62:3---“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”  When we tell this Christmas story we express our longings for rulers and leaders, for governments, who function with transparency and compassion so that justice and peace not only prevail but thrive and grow in life-giving soil.

 

The readings from the Psalms also sing the praises of such a king, giving us a perspective on the Christmas story that speaks of inclusiveness, of love and justice and choral outburst in which all of nature is heard.

 

The epistle readings offer short theological statements about Jesus, mostly in terms of grace and sacrificial redemption.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all  . . . we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”  (Titus 2:11, 13-14)  In this approach to the Christmas story, we know ourselves to be loved beyond condition, forgiven, “saved,” and called to a life of zeal for good deeds.  What a message to receive and celebrate on Christmas Day.

 

The reading from Galatians repeats John’s metaphor in which we are children of God.  (Galatians 4:5-6)  Hebrews tells us of a God who “in these last days . . . has spoken to us by a Son . . . He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being . . .”  (Hebrews 1:2-3)  This Christmas story reminds us that when we look into that manger, we see God.  It reminds us to look for God in humble places.

 

So---what is your Christmas story?  What is mine?  The perspective that means the most to me is the one that tells a story of grace.  Christmas reminds me that my life, all life, is gift.  Viewing life through that lens doesn’t mean that I don’t work hard, that I don’t have talents, a contribution to make in the ongoing building of a better world.  It reminds me to appreciate the tremendous contribution that comes from beyond myself.  Some talk about being “self-made,” “pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” etc.  They speak with pride of their achievements.  I have always been deeply aware of how much I have received from others, the unexpected opportunities, the encouragement, the training, the sustenance.  There is so much in life that just comes, unsolicited, often unexpected.  It’s the way life is.  My prayers are always filled with thanksgiving, often specifically itemized.

 

Gift-giving is a most appropriate symbol for the meaning of Christmas in my life.  There are other perspectives that are important, to me as well as to the church and world---ones that emphasize peace and justice.  Even they, however, are connected with the greatest gift of all, the giving of oneself, in humility, in service to others---a giving embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.

 

I leave it to you to ponder upon how you tell the story of Christmas as it plays out in your life.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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