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Witnessing Miracles

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Witnessing Miracles

This past week, I was driving though a nearby neighborhood on my way to small group, when I was suddenly struck by all of the Christmas lights. And for reasons I still can’t identify, I just started paying attention to them. It was like I was seeing Christmas lights for the first time.  And –whether this is statistically true or not I don’t know- but it seemed to me in that moment that this neighborhood I was driving through had a significantly higher light-per-household ratio than any other neighborhood I’d driven through this whole season.  And for me, because I’m neurotic, I start wondering: what kind of sociological voodoo is going on here?  I mean, is it possible that, for some unknown reasons, most of West Des Moines’ most festive people just all decided to move to this particular street; or did it start with a chance Clark Griswald or two, and spread like a virus from there?

Because, the point is, there were a lot of lights.  And not just lights on like the first floor gutters and shrubberies like normal Americans, but there were lights around windows and even lining the whole frame and roof-lines of some houses; and there were light-up characters in the yards; and illuminated inflatables; and those little LED projectors that you just stick in the front yard, and point at your house to make it look like the whole thing is haunted with evil fairy glitter. Which, by the way, if you live in a hard-core Christmas-decor neighborhood, doesn’t that last one, with the little LED projector, have to be just a spit in the face?  There you are, spending hours or even days, climbing up and down ladders in inclement weather, enduring a ceaseless stream of family ridicule regarding how your lights aren’t straight –or just don’t quite look right, maybe you need some more on the other side of the house. All the while, you’re risking bodily harm to yourself and hiking your energy bill by a completely unnecessary 15%, in an already high-energy-demand season –all that simply to let passers-by know that this is a neighborhood that loves Christmas!  Then, the very next day, Bob, from across the street, waltzes right out his front door in his bathrobe with an extension cord and a cylinder-on-a-stake, stabs the thing in the ground, plugs the cord in to the closest outlet, and returns to his breakfast before his coffee cools.  Later that night, viola! –sinister light going just everywhere, scaring the children, making it impossible for Santa to land, ruining everything for everyone!

‘No, I don’t think so, Bob!  You either love Christmas until you want to hang yourself, or you keep your house naked like Kim Kardashian on Instagram, because you have no shame. Don’t try to pretend to be a patriot and a Christian with that kind of laser harlotry, Bob!’ That’s Christmas idolatry, that’s what it is!  And this neighborhood won’t stand for it!  Look at the Johnsons –the Johnsons have tastefully decorated their house in vintage Christmas lights they bought off Amazon for $400, with a very bright and classic all-white palate!  Meanwhile what do you do, Bob?  You buy a laser can and point it at yourself, to spotlight your own personal orgy of self-loathing and Christmas contempt.

Those are the kinds of things that went through my head while I was driving –because this neighborhood just had to have a story, right? And there I was, bearing witness to their public celebration. I mean it seemed so clear to me that this neighborhood definitely had its own spirit; and yet, between all of the individual houses, with their mismatched color-schemes and the palpable dissonance of vastly varied yard-décor standards, it seemed obvious to me that there were also some huge plot-holes in the neighborhood story too.  It was like driving through a bright and gaudy theme-park; but the time for the carnival arrived before they’d come to a consensus on the theme.

This point was really hit home for me –and indeed is the only reason I remember this moment at all- when I rounded a slight bend in the road to see a luminous nativity scene, front and center in one particular yard.  And I’ll admit, something deep and tribal in me was triggered at the sight of the ghostly-luminous trio of Mary, Joseph, and little baby Jesus. It was so heart-warming to see that at least someone here hadn’t lost sight of Christ in Christmas.  And yet, at the same time, I’m always a little startled to see my savior portrayed in plastic, and artificially illuminated. But at least it’s still Jesus, right? Things can’t be that bad as long as Jesus is still front and center for at least a few of us, can it?

But then ‘what to my wondering eyes should appear not only Jesus, but also a red-nosed reindeer.’  Yep, it was Rudolph.  You know, right where the donkey usually goes.  And in place of the shepherds, there was a smiling inflatable snowman. And in the place of the Magi was good old Saint Nick, dragging a big green bag of presents. I think there were some elves too, I don’t know, because at that point, I could only see red.

Confession: yes, I’m neurotic on this point.  I can own that.  I’m like one of those crazy people you’ll see at a public dinner who only takes ridiculous single-spoon-sized portions, because they don’t want the different kinds of their food to touch on those flimsy paper plates –I’m just like them, but with stories. For instance, yes, it bothers me a little when nativity scenes display shepherds and Magi together—because those are characters from two different gospel stories, and I don’t want them mixed up.  So, as you might imagine, seeing a nativity scene that had Santa and some –but not all- of his magic reindeer, along with a mythical snowman, lit up so bright you could land a 747 in their front yard… made me want to burn their house down a little.  But I was definitely going to ring the doorbell first, before lighting the fire… just to make sure everyone was home.

But I didn’t!  I totally didn’t! I didn’t even vandalize their yard at all, or even stop the car to take a picture of this Christmas abomination to share with all of you this morning, and shame them on the internet, because I’m making progress. On my own issues. (Please be proud of me!) I’m developing coping mechanisms so that –even though I might not fully succeed in loving all my neighbors all the time- I at least don’t assault them.  Even though they might very clearly be terrible people.  (Which brings out the terrible-ness in me too.) So I kept on driving.

So, yes, I’ll own that I’m a little neurotic, and if that happened to be someone’s yard here, I’m sorry –and I hope I don’t need to explain that I never really intended to burn your family at all.  I was just trying to make fun of how ridiculous I know I can be sometimes, while also hopefully making a very simple point, which is that I think we’ve got a Christmas-story-telling-problem. The people of that particular house were not the only ones to put Santa and Jesus on the same scene, were they?  We do it all the time! It happens too in our house: on our Christmas tree at the Poland residence, there are ornaments for Santa, and ornaments for Jesus.  And it wasn’t until I saw it in that other yard, that way, that I came to see: that’s kind of disgusting.

Because Santa and Jesus represent two pretty different things, right?

Now, I’ll try to spare you all the details of this, but there’s been a tension in the celebration of Christmas from the beginning.  And I think we need to name it. In my years of youth ministry, I had probably two or three ornery teenagers who would discover on Wikipedia or somewhere some scholarly speculation that Jesus was not born on December 25, in the year 0 A.D.  And they’d go on to challenge me by pointing out that December 25th was the first day of the celebration of the Winter Solstice, which is a holiday associated with the ancient Roman cult.  But, in fact, there were and are lots of religions and cultures that have celebrated the Winter Solstice.  And without getting into the explicitly mythology of the holiday, the very practical premise of the Winter Solstice celebration was that a lot of people get sad in the winter time.  We have scientific terminology for this now, which we call ‘seasonal affect disorder.’  And we all know about this, right?  In the winter, there are less hours of sunlight, the landscape looks a little more dreary, and we tend to get less exercise.  So the short of it is that we get sad.  Lots and lots of ordinarily happy people get depressed in the winter time –and this has likely been true for humanity for a long time.  So the question then becomes: how do we respond?  How do we react to, or participate in, this saddest of seasons?

With a party, right?  If there’s food to be had, and warm bodies to enjoy, and maybe some tasty beverages to lubricate the social frictions, let’s celebrate that! And lots and lots of cultures had a celebration that they associated with the solar calendar: on the day of the year that has the least amount of sunlight, our days ahead are only going to get brighter!  So, in a season of darkness and isolation, let’s create a reason to get out and be together and have fun!  There’s a lot of wisdom in that, right?  And the ancient Roman Empire capitalized on this too. There it wasn’t just an abstractly religious holiday, it was a national holiday to promote the welfare of the Empire.  They found productivity went up and revolts went down when people had a bit of a break and an outlet for some of their personal desires. And apparently, they knew how to party.  Look it up, and learn about vomitoriums at some point. It’s fascinating.

But as the good news of Jesus spread through the empire, and eventually reached its highest social tiers, the newly Christian leaders found they couldn’t celebrate in the same way anymore.  Orgies, and sun worship, and temple prostitutes, and lots and lots of drunkenness didn’t fit well with the whole ‘let’s follow-Jesus’ and help the poor model (incidentally, neither did greed, control, and territorialism, but they never figured that out). Because the two stories don’t fit, right? Because Jesus wasn’t just about feeling good; Jesus was about becoming good.  Jesus was all about working hard to make the world a little more like heaven, and about humanity becoming a little more like God in the way we love and care for one another.  And getting drunk, stuffed, and hailing Caesar aren’t going to get us there, are they?

And all of us know this deep down, don’t we: that the parties never actually help.  Sure, they might allow us to coast through some dark days from time to time, but when it comes to our deep-seeded sense of loneliness, and insignificance, and a crippling fear of meaninglessness, parties are not a part of the solution. Often times they’re a part of the problem.  And this is especially true if our problem is sin, as the Gospel of Matthew identifies it.  If our deepest human problem is our own unhealthy self-obsession or self-preoccupation, then parties can do nothing but eventually let us down.

And so I ask: how many of you feel this about your Christmas celebrations?  How many times have the Christmas bills lasted longer than the happiness the gifts brought?  How many times have our family gatherings been showcases for family dysfunction, with traditions and movies serving only as a thin and shiny wrapping paper?  How many times have the parties and holiday expectations left us drained and let down, when they were hoping our spirits would be uplifted?  How many of us –maybe not all the time, but sometimes- how many of us feel that Christmas is this beautiful and highly-anticipated gift we just can’t wait to open, only to discover at last that, while the wrapping was lovely, the box itself is empty?

We’ve got the lights, and the tree, and the presents, and Santa, and Frosty, and the food, and the traditions, and all the holiday movies, with even little baby Jesus sitting in the manger.  We’ve got the whole Christmas orgy, and somewhere we’ve forgotten: who’s this all supposed to be for?

With our Christmas lights that don’t help us see.  With our trees that don’t grow fruit.  With our stories with nothing more to teach us.  With gifts offering only one more stumbling block for our feet… who is all of this supposed to be fore?

I wanted to read our Christmas story for today, pickup up where we left off last week, in the Gospel of Matthew. We’re going to read about a man named John.  And while this isn’t the Christmas story as most of us think of it in the most traditional sense, this is the first common story that all of the gospels in the Bible share about Jesus.  Their common theme is not shepherds, or Magi, or even little baby Jesus, but in all of his stories, the excitement begins with a crazy man yelling in the wilderness.  It says this:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing,“Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.[a]

John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

13 At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. 17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

 

‘Change your hearts and your lives,’ says the wild man John, for, ‘here comes the Kingdom of Heaven.’  That’s the simple message he has; and it’s the message Jesus picked up for his own working ministry.  Change your hearts and your lives. Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven.

Be like a tree in a fertile orchard: let your fruit be sweet, and the harvest bountiful.  Offer nourishment, and new trees will sprout from the droppings.

That’s the Christmas miracle: that ordinary people get to participate in the extraordinary things of heaven. Not after we’re dead, but we can start now.  We get to create.  We get to give.  We get to re-produce.  And get this: that makes God happy. Fruitful people make God happy.  And when fruitful people work together, for God’s happiness, heaven is here.

So the Christmas challenge is really very simple: find your fruit and give it.  Learn what kind of a tree you are, and start sharing.  Make something of yourself, because God has already given you all the stuff you need to be the gift the world can’t live without.

The world needs your prayers.

The world needs your gifts –of time, and money, and talent.

The world needs your living and compassionate service.

And the world needs your story.

The world needs to hear about the miracles you’ve witnessed –the things that only God could have done. The world needs to hear the story of what God’s doing with your life.

And here’s some good news: you get to tell it. You’ve been given a little creative license to view your own experiences and lessons to pass on to others.  Because there’s a whole lot of really amazing stuff out there –mixed in with some stuff that’s painful, and mixed in with an overwhelming amount of stuff that’s just okay. But where’s the best stuff, according to you?  What moments are truly worth celebrating.  What gifts have you most treasured?  What gift do you hope to become? The world needs to hear that.  Our community needs to hear that from you.

Let’s pray.

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