That’s Christmas to Me

If this were just an isolated incident, I’d think God might have made a miscalculation. But it’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over and over in the Biblical narrative—who matters to God is largely seperate from who matters to human beings.


Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Any Pentatonix fans out there?

For those of you who don’t know—and because I love their music and want you to love it too—Pentatonix is an a capella group of four (formerly five) members. They shot to stardom when they won season 3 of The Sing-Off and became incredibly popular through your YouTube music videos. But they’re best known for their Christmas albums. Their Christmas albums have been the best-selling Christmas albums every year since 2014. You can actually hear their music on holiday radio stations!

One of their songs, and the name of their second Christmas album, is titled “That’s Christmas to Me”. It’s a beautiful, perhaps sappy tune about what Christmas means to the group: a warm fireplace, presents under the tree, mistletoe kisses, the joy of family, candles in the dark. You know, Christmas-y stuff.

Every time I hear that song I stop and listen, and not necessarily because of the lyrics–I really like the harmony too. But it does beg the question: what does Christmas mean to me?

It’s not an easy question for me to answer. There’s so much we associate with Christmas, how can I decide what it means to me? So tonight, I want to take my cue from one of the most overlooked characters in the Christmas story: Mary.

It may surprise you, but Martin Luther, the accidental founder of the Lutheran tradition of Christianity, adored Mary. Because she is so very, very popular in the Roman Catholic Church (not to mention the Eastern Orthodox Churches), we often assume that Luther threw out any sort of devotion or love of Mary. But that’s simply not true. Luther, being a Roman Catholic until his excommunication, upheld many of the traditions around this remarkable woman.

There is perhaps no mere mortal who receives as much praise and adoration as Mary, the Mother of Jesus does in Christianity. She is called Theotokos, the “Mother of God”; and the “Queen of Heaven”. Ancient church traditions assert that she was born without original sin and that she was taken up to heaven without dying at the end of her life. The Roman Catholic Church has a fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and prayers to her are an integral part of that devotion. Five of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Churches are devoted to Mary. She is considered superior to all other created beings, and thus prays to God on behalf of all human beings.

While Martin Luther rejected the more extreme practices of Marian devotion, it cannot be denied that he held her in the highest esteem, as Christians have done for 2000 years. It would do us Lutherans good to reclaim some of that esteem and devotion to Mary that is at the root of our theological tradition.

With all of this devotion to Mary, one wouldn’t be out of line to assume that Mary was someone who was already important when the angel Gabriel visited her to deliver the stunning news of Jesus’s birth. One wouldn’t be out of line to assume that she was rich and powerful and beautiful; and indeed, many of our images and icons of Mary depict her this way.

But to do so misses much of the point of the story. Because before her visit from Gabriel, Mary wasn’t important. She wasn’t powerful. She wasn’t rich. We have no idea if she was beautiful or not. She was insignificant. She was a nobody.

What we do know about Mary was that she was a poor girl engaged to a low-class construction worker, a carpenter. We know that she lived in the sparsely-inhabited, rural town of Nazareth. We know… well, that’s about all we know. While there are other, later, traditions surrounding Mary’s life, the fact that she’s barely mentioned at all in the New Testament shows just how much of a nobody she was for her entire life. There’s very little evidence-based, trustworthy knowledge about her. She just wasn’t important enough.

She is not someone people would have looked at and said, “You see that Mary? One day, she’s going to make it. One day, she’s going to be important. One day, the whole world is going to know her name. One day, God is going to make her special.” Because she wasn’t special.

And I can sympathize with Mary. I’m not special. Most of us, I believe, can sympathize with Mary. We live in a town of just 2000 people according to the last census, and that’s stretching it. The logging industry that gave birth to our town is greatly reduced from what it used to be. The farms that were supposed to take its place in the economy are largely gone. Our livelihood mostly relies on the generosity and wealth of others who can choose to come and spend their vacations here; and when they don’t—when the rains of summer keep people away or poor winters ruin the snowmobile season—it hits our town hard, and people struggle. We have a pretty decent median income, and great houses on the lakes, but 19% of our town lives in poverty, and 9% don’t have health insurance (source: United States Census Bureau: Three Lakes, Wisconsin).

We do have a few notable sports figures who came from our town. But most of us will never achieve any sort of fame or notoriety. We are important to each other. But Three Lakes, like Nazareth, is a town that maybe only 1/10,000,000th of the world’s population will ever care about. We are, in the grand scheme, pretty insignificant people. Could God really be interested in us?

What about the 22% of our county that reports binge or heavy drinking of alcohol? Or the 20% of mothers in our county who reported smoking while pregnant? Or the 14% of us who report depression, and yes, that includes myself? Could God really be interested in us? (source: Oneida County Public Health Department)

And that’s why Mary matters tonight. That’s why this story matters. It matters because the incarnation, this event of God becoming a human being wasn’t some big grand affair. Nothing about God’s choices makes any sense. They challenge every assumption about who and what matters.

God, ruler of the universe, could have been born in an upper class family living off the entitlement they receive because they are wealthy. Instead, Jesus was born among the poor.

God could have been born in a kingly palace, Herod’s palace, perhaps, surrounded by slaves ready to bow to every whim. Instead, Jesus was born in a dirty, smelly cave, surrounded by animals.

God could have sent messengers to announce the coming of the Messiah to all of the kings and emperors and nobility of the world. Instead, Jesus’s birth was announced to a group of shepherds—the lowest of the low class, the dirty, crass, crude, scorned folks out in a field somewhere. Jesus’s birth was announced to the lowly, the despised, the forgotten.

God could have been born in a way that drew honor and praise from the Chosen People and their king. Instead, Jesus is given honor by foreign dignitaries who give him gifts his own people could never dream of giving him.

God could have been born a citizen of the Roman Empire, or the Han Dynasty, or the Mayan civilization, civilizations of great power and influence. Instead, Jesus was born a Galilean, an oppressed people with no influence at all in the wider world as a people oppressed by the Roman Empire.

If this were just an isolated incident, I’d think God might have made a miscalculation. But it’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over and over in the Biblical narrative—who matters to God is largely separate from who matters to human beings. Whether it’s old geezers like Abraham, or lying scumbags like Jacob, or all-around terrible human beings like Samson, or murderers like Moses or poor fisherman like Peter and Andrew, or overzealous church police like Paul, or empowered, persistent women like Phoebe, Lydia, Priscilla, or confused people like Nicodemus, or sexual minorities like the Ethiopian eunuch, or poor country girls with no future like Mary, God goes out of the way to go to the diversity of people no one else thinks matter.

At every turn, God eschews power and honor and prestige and specifically takes on people that live with daily fear and pain and worry and doubt and insecurity and vulnerability and weakness: people like Mary; people like us.

And that’s what Christmas means to me. It means God no longer being treated as just as an idea or a cause or an abstraction, but going through that messy process of growing as a fetus and being born in the dump, in a cave. It means God not living a life of luxury, but sharing in the hard life the vast majority of human beings go through.

It means a God who is all-too-well acquainted with depression and sleep-anxiety and hunger and thirst and boo-boos and uh-ohs.

It means a God who understands exactly what it looks and feels like to live the way we live, right here in Three Lakes, right here in Wisconsin, right here on this planet.

And that matters. It matters to me.

It matters to everyone like me who suffers from mental illness and struggles with it who needs to know that God is acquainted with sorrow and grief.

It matters to every part-time seasonal service worker who has ever had to wonder whether the weather was going to provide a good tourist season who needs to know that God knows what it’s like to be poor.

It matters to the 25 transgender people who were murdered this year because of hatred who needed to know that God knew what it felt like to be murdered.

It matters to the minimum-wage workers who can’t make enough money to support themselves even though they work more than 40 hours a week who need to know that God knows what oppression feels like.

It matters to the new mothers wondering how in the heck they are supposed to cope with this new burden when they are so far away from their support systems to who need to know that God understands being unprepared for motherhood.

It matters to the people wondering if their taxes are going to go up or down and can’t make heads or tails out of anything because the whole process is a joke who need to know that God knows what it feels like to live under economic uncertainty.

It matters to the people wondering if their lives will ever mean anything to anyone, and if maybe the world would just be a better place if they removed themselves from it, permanently, by completing suicide, who need to know that God knows what it’s like to want to die.

It matters because when God told the poor nobody Mary through Gabriel that she was blessed among all people, that message was for all of us just like her.

It matters because when the angel told the shepherds, “I am bringing YOU good tidings,” and “to YOU this day is born a savior,” and “this will be a sign for YOU,” that message was for everyone who’s ever felt like a shepherd, left out in the night, forgotten, ignored.

It matters because the birth of Jesus was God’s messy, bloody entry into our crap, into our lives, to take care of us.

It matters because Mary’s acceptance of this whole ridiculous plan ushered in a new era of hope that simply wasn’t possible before. Now, we know that God is with us. Now, we know that the world will never be the same—that it is about to turn. Now, we know that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for us, every last one of us, no matter what our lives look like, no matter who we are, no matter what we’re going through.

That is why tonight matters. That is what Christmas means to me: hope, life, advocacy, accompaniment, redemption, salvation, healing, wholeness, for you, for me, for us.

For us.

Featured Image: This photo of a mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel, donated by the Catholic Church in Japan, taken by Adriatikus, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

We Are Not Alone

But into that fear, that heart of darkness, there is another voice, another message. It’s hard to hear, amidst the cries of danger, especially those that call for overreactions to those things that scare us. It’s a small voice, easily buried and forgotten, but it’s there. And it’s the reason we are gathered here tonight.

Nativity of Our Lord I
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

It has been an interesting year, this 2015 CE. It’s always hard to look back at a year, a whole year, and attempt to distill it down to what made it unique. What made 2015 2015?

Maybe it’s the cynic in me, and this is probably true of more years than this, but when I look back on 2015, there’s one word that sticks out to me more than any other: fear.

In 2015, we were afraid. Depending on who you ask, people were afraid of different things. Nigerians were afraid of more massacres. Eastern Ukraine was afraid of more military incursion. Kenya was afraid of gunmen killing people at their university. Nepal was afraid of another earthquake. Saudi Arabia was afraid of another stampede. Everyone’s afraid of ISIL.

We were afraid of Iran’s nuclear program. Minorities were afraid of unjustified attack. Police were afraid of assassination. We were afraid of angry gunmen rampaging through churches and schools. Some were afraid that same-sex marriage would be a disaster. We were afraid of what our Civil War history still meant today. Syrians fled their country in fear of their lives, and we in turn were deathly afraid of them. We were afraid of terror attacks, committed by our own or by others. We were afraid that people with different political viewpoints would destroy us. In short: we were—no, we are afraid.

How does one even begin to celebrate Christmas in an environment so saturated with fear? Honestly, it seems like no matter how much holiday cheer we pump into the air, under it all, we instinctively think that the world is still just as fear-filled as it ever was.

Indeed, our ancestors in the faith know this fear well. Circumstances of fear are what prompted the writers of our readings tonight to put their feelings into words.

The historical circumstances surrounding our reading from Isaiah are actually an interesting time. Isaiah is speaking to King Ahab of Judah, who has a bit of quandry on his hands. His northern neighbor, the kingdom for Israel, has allied with their old enemy Syria and seeks to remove him from his throne and replace him with a puppet king. Ahab has a tough choice ahead of him: do I do nothing and hope for the best? Or do I ally with everyone’s enemy, the Assyrian Empire, and hope that decision won’t come back to bite me later on? Not a position I envy.

I think most of us are familiar with the circumstances surrounding our Gospel story. How Mary and Joseph, unwed pregnant parents, are forced to take a long journey to be registered in a census. Upon arrival in Joseph’s ancestral home, they find that no home has a spare room for them to sleep in. And so they end up sleeping in a cave or place for animals to rest, without any real idea what the next day will bring. And worse, Mary is going into labor. Not a position I envy.

I wouldn’t blame Isaiah for succumbing to the environment of fear that gripped his king and his kingdom. No matter how much we try to romanticize it, the prospect of war, of killing, of siege and death, is an ugly prospect. Nor would I blame any characters on the night Mary and Joseph spent outside with the animals for being worried sick about what was going to happen that night. I wouldn’t blame anyone who has experienced any number of the tragedies around the world in 2015 from living the rest of their lives in well-deserved fear.

But into that fear, that heart of darkness, there is another voice, another message. It’s hard to hear, amidst the cries of danger, especially those that call for overreactions to those things that scare us. It’s a small voice, easily buried and forgotten, but it’s there. And it’s the reason we are gathered here tonight.

Isaiah lived right in the heart of anxiety about a possible upcoming war, when things seemed at their lowest point. And his message is: do not be afraid. The darkness is ending, the anxiety will lift, the war will not devastate. You will be free of your fear. And how does Isaiah know this? A child is going to be born, a child right there, right then, in the kingdom of Judah. The voice of a little child in your midst, in the middle of this crisis, will be God’s sign that you are not alone in your fear and grief.

The stakes were raised considerably in the case of Mary and Joseph. This was not just a story about a single night for a pair of poor single parents. Because the Christmas story is not just about a one time a year celebration of a birth; it’s a reminder that no matter how dark and desperate the night appears, no matter how much fear is in the air, no matter what disasters befall us or we seek to befall others, we are not alone. We are not alone in our fear and grief.

More than anything, this is the message of the entire season of Christmas. We are not alone in our fear.

We huddle together tonight, holding our candles for warmth and for light, because we need each other. We can’t do this alone. We can’t face the world out there with all of its fear by ourselves. One candle doesn’t provide a lot of light, but 100? 150? All of a sudden, together, the light shines more brightly and the darkness doesn’t seem so dark after all. In these moments, together, with our lights and voices raised, we proclaim the truth: God is here, with us, ever present, ever bright, even and especially in the darkness.

You are not alone in your fear. You are not alone in your grief. We, gathered together on this cold night together, are not alone. Christmas is the time when we remember most of all that even in our loneliness and pain, God is here.

Featured Image: “Christmas eve after dark” by Lars Plougmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Reflection – December 28, 2014 – Christmas 1B

What can the church learn from the witness and faith of Holy Simeon?

First Sunday of Christmas B
Written for Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

There is a saying that goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and this is true. According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 735 B.C.E., and it has existed for the last 2700 years. If you travel to Rome today, you’d see cranes and constructions workers still in the city, building and repairing buildings and infrastructure. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in fact, is still being built millennia later.

Unless there’s something strange going on, I highly doubt that there’s anyone living there who was also alive when Rome was founded. What would it be like for one of those first villagers to be transported to the modern city of Rome. Would they recognize it? Would they have dreamed that the little town they built would grow into one of the most important cities in history?

Probably not. Those who built the city had to trust that their work would live on. They had to believe that the city would exist after they died. Even though they wouldn’t live to see the city 2700 years later, they still laid the foundations. It was worth it to them, even though they would never get to see the end of their work.

So it is with Simeon, or Holy Simeon, as he is sometimes known. We aren’t told in our story this morning how old Simeon is when Jesus’s parents bring him to the temple, but it is traditionally thought that he was an old man. God had promised him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. He lived in that great in-between time, after Jesus was born, but before he began his ministry. If he was an old man, it is likely that he did not live very much longer after this story, and died before Jesus’s ministry began. He would get to see the very beginning of the Messiah’s work, but not the end.

In our day, this would be considered a horrible tragedy. “How awful!” we would say, “that he almost lived long enough to see God’s salvation fully realized! If only he had lived a little longer!” We like to see our work completed, so we can enjoy it. But not everything can be finished in our lifetime. We don’t always get to see the fruits of our labor.

There are generally two types of reaction to this revelation. One is to focus only on the here and now and our own self-satisfaction, laboring only for those things that we will get to see and enjoy. The only things that matter in life are the things we can enjoy right now. With no thought for the future, we can serve ourselves without consequence, because we won’t be around to experience them anyway. What happens after us is someone else’s problem. There is no need to take care of our planet, because it will last long enough for us. There’s no need to support schools, because we don’t have children in them. If it doesn’t directly benefit us, it’s not worth it.

The other is to realize and recognize that things develop over time, and to account for that. Parents build houses, hoping that they can pass them down to their kids. Cities expand their infrastructure to accommodate future population growth. Every action we take now has some sort of consequence for the future. The action may not directly benefit us, but it will benefit someone.

Simeon won’t get to see Jesus’s baptism. He won’t get to hear Jesus preach on the Mount or in the Plain. He won’t be present for Jesus’s trial. He won’t get to see Jesus go to cross and die. And he won’t get to hear the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. Instead of despairing, though, Simeon rejoices. The saving work of God has begun at last. There is a lot left to do, but Simeon trusts that the work he won’t be alive to see will still continue. God’s salvation will come.

Christians have been living this reality for over 2000 years. Just as Simeon trusted that, after he died, the little baby Jesus would grow up and be the means through which God’s salvation would come to earth, so too do Christians trust that, after we die, Christ will come again. Or before we die, if we are lucky! God’s work started long, long before us, and if it doesn’t come sooner, it will continue after us. We dip into the moving stream of God’s story and exit again, but the stream still flows on.

The church is the same way. It has existed as long as Christianity has. And as long as there is life on earth, the church will continue. If you read religious news, you might be under the impression that the church is coming to an end. Church memberships are on the decline in the large Protestant churches. Less and less Americans are identifying as Christians. European churches are in trouble. Christendom, the idea that the church and Western society and culture are one and the same, is collapsing.

It is true that the church is changing. The church looked very different 50 years ago. But it looked very different 100 years ago, and 150 years ago, and 250 years ago, and 500 years ago. In each generation, Christians have built a church that would outlive them, for the Christians who came after them, and our church today is no different.

As Christians, we don’t have to fear that the church we have will only last as long as we do. We won’t kill the church. The Holy Spirit is much more resilient than we are, and has been doing this for a LOT longer than we have. The church will not live or die because of us. It will look different after us, but it always has, and it always will. It is bigger than us and our short lives.

Instead, we are free to ask—what church will we leave behind us when we leave? Do we build a church meant only for ourselves, that will continue in spite of us, instead of because of us? Or do we build a church that, like the city of Rome, existed before us, and will continue to be built after us, always changing, always different, but always there?

Simeon never got to see the salvation God promised—he caught a glimpse, and then he died. But salvation came anyway. This is the beginning of the Christmas season, when we get the same glimpse that Simeon got of God’s work in the world. That work continues in the church today, work to which we are called. We may get to see the fruits of our work. We may not. That doesn’t mean the work isn’t worthwhile.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was the church, and neither was the world. They were built by people working toward something they could not see, people who trusted that their work, no matter how small, was not in vain. The work of the church is not in vain. It never has been, and it never will be. This Christmas season, let yourself be a part of that work. The church of our children will thank you.

Featured Image: “Hacker” by Waiting for the Word is licensed under CC BY 2.0.