Saturday, December 26, 2015

He Grew Up

Luke 2:41-52 / 1 Samuel 2:26
Christmas 1
December 27, 2015
William G. Carter

Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people. (1 Samuel 2:26)

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:52)

When I was a child, I loved this story.  Jesus was holding his own with the adults.  The picture in my third grade Bible portrayed him as a young boy who was lecturing the religious leaders. There he stood in his little tunic, speaking confidently to the old men in their robes. They stroked their beards and looked at him quizzically. How could such a young boy understand so much? Clearly he was the Holy Whiz Kid who needed to be in the Father’s house, and I liked that. I liked that Jesus was a kid.

When I was a teenager, I heard something else in the story: Jesus talked back to his mother! Jesus was twelve years old, just a year or two younger than me. His mother was complaining about how he “treated” them, when all he wanted to do was to talk with the teachers. What was her problem? He wasn’t treating her badly; he was talking about the Bible. He wasn’t wandering the streets, he was in the Temple. Isn’t that a mother would want her child to be, especially the mother of Jesus? So he talks back to her, and the storyteller says she and Joseph didn’t have a clue. When I was a teenager, I liked that.

When I became a parent, the story shifted and took on a new perspective. Suddenly I could imagine what it was like to have one of your kids wander off. It scared me, just like when I would ask one of my kids to get some paper towels at Target and they wouldn’t come back. I trusted them, I gave them some freedom and some responsibility, and I had to hunt them down in the candy aisle. I could imagine Mary and Joseph worrying themselves sick.

They had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover in a great crowd of pilgrims. The holiday was over and the large group from Nazareth traveled back north. Everybody traveled en masse – all the families, all the cousins, all the children. They tell me it was about a hundred twenty miles, and would have taken five days. On the first night, Joseph says, “Where is Jesus?” Mary doesn’t know. They can’t find him in the encampment, so they travel a full day back to Jerusalem, retracing their steps. And on the third day, they find him.

I think scripture gives us an edited conversation. Mary and Joseph probably had a lot more to say than what the Gospel of Luke records. They were upset and they were angry. And there was Jesus, talking about the commandments, one of which declares, “You shall honor your father and mother, so that your days will be long…” (Exodus 20:12). “So kid, you get up and get moving, or else I’m going to make you eat matzah and horseradish for a whole month.”

But now when I hear the story, I hear something more. This story is about more than the Wonder Child, more than the Surly Adolescent, more than the object of his parent’s anxiety. This is about the young man who is schooled in the Torah of Israel. His life is being shaped by the teaching of scripture. It says Jesus sits and listens to the teachers. He asks questions. When they ask questions of him, he offers answers. It never says he miraculously knows it all. No, he is a student of the ways of God. He is studying and he is learning.

Clearly he got this from his parents. It was their custom to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish deliverance from Egyptian slavery. They were Jews, and they lived out their faith. They knew God spoke to them in the words of scripture, and they took responsibility for nurturing the faith of their son. That is what this story is about. A Jewish family has a Jewish son, whose faith is so shaped that he wants to be in the Father’s house.

After all, this is the Gospel of Luke. Luke begins his Gospel in the Jerusalem Temple In chapter one, there is a priest named Zechariah who is serving in the Temple. In chapter twenty-four, the Easter story concludes with the disciples returning to Jerusalem, where they were “continually in the Temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:53)

Luke understands that Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere. He comes out of somewhere. His life has been shaped by the faith of his family, the faith of his people.

This isn’t a concern for the Gospel of Mark. Mark says John appeared in the wilderness, and voila! Jesus came to be baptized. We don’t know anything about him, except he came from Nazareth (1:9), had a home in Capernaum (2:1), and had some brothers (3:31). In chapter six, Mark tells us he was a carpenter (6:3), but that’s about it.

Luke says that is not good enough. Jesus had a history. He came from a family, he had an ancestry, he had a religious heritage . . . and he grew up. As Luke puts it, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor (2:52).” That sounds like a mere tag line, a summary, but listen to it for what it says: Jesus wasn’t finished when he was born. He continued to grow.

Ever see those Renaissance portraits of Christmas? The baby is in the arms of Mary, and the baby’s face is that of a mature adult. That’s all wrong – it’s making a theological statement about the eternal wisdom of the pre-existent Christ, but that’s not how the scene actually looked. Jesus was a human baby who looked like a baby. When he was twelve years old, he looked and acted like a twelve year old. Sure, he was a little precocious, but he was also well schooled in the Torah.

And then after that, Luke says he continued to grow up. He “increased in wisdom,” and that takes a while. Wisdom doesn’t happen overnight. He “increased in years,” and that takes a while too. Some of you know about that. And then Luke says, “he increased in human favor,” that is, more and more people liked him.

And in a startling phrase, Luke adds, “he increased in divine favor.” Now, before you wonder what that means, let me point out that Luke stole those words from somebody else. He didn’t come up with the phrase all by himself. He lifted it from the scrolls of the scriptures, specifically 1 Samuel 2:26. Speaking of Israel’s first prophet, the Bible says, “The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”

How about that? Luke wants us to know that Jesus was so saturated in the faith of Israel, that he uses the words of Israel’s scripture to talk about the young boy’s growth. People sometimes think that Luke is interested only in extending the Gospel to the Gentiles, to the outsiders out there somewhere. Not true; he tells us that Jesus and his Gospel come from somewhere – they come from the promises of God to the people of Israel.

So Jesus has been instructed, “You shall honor your father and your mother,” so he returns to Nazareth, and is obedient to his parents. When they say the next year, “Let’s go back to Jerusalem again for the Passover,” he goes with them, and I’m sure his mother made sure he didn’t wander off again.

And when the Sabbath comes on Friday night, he takes off his carpenter’s apron, ceases from his weekly work, and says the blessing, “Blessed are you, O God, ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath commandments.”

And Jesus continues to learn how to read, even though the neighbors probably said, “You’re a carpenter, why do you need to learn how to read?” But he insisted on learning how to read the scriptures. It was his custom, says Luke (4:16-17), and he could find his way around the Bible.

And he grew in his understanding of what the Bible actually says. When the Tempter came to him and quoted scripture, as a way of twisting him into self-destruction, Jesus knew the scriptures even better,  and he knew that the scriptures teach us to love God more than everything else (4:1-13).

The point is simple: you can’t make your way through the world unless you grow up, unless you continue to grow in your comprehension of God and his ways, unless you learn how to trust, unless somebody instructs you to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). These things don’t come naturally for us. We have to be taught.

So Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents. He grew in wisdom, he advanced in years, and he increased in the favor of God and his neighbors.

And years later, when the time came for God to call him and say, “I have work for you to do,” he was ready.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

That's What Christmas Is All About

Luke 2:8-14
Christmas Eve 2015
William G. Carter

Does anybody know what Christmas is all about?

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The television executives were nervous. It was a week before “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was set to air, and they didn’t like the show.

Children were voicing the characters of children, and that had never been done before. There was no laugh track, unlike most of the television shows of the time. Some moments of the plot were moody and melancholy, and the jazz soundtrack didn’t help. The pacing was slow and the animation was too simple.

But the greatest objection was the speech that Linus made in the school auditorium. After contending with an unruly cast for the Christmas play, Charlie Brown cries out, “Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?” Linus steps forward and tells the Bible story about the birth of Jesus.

“We can’t do that,” complained one of the television executives. “A Christmas special can’t be religious. That will narrow the audience. We would be crucified.” That was 1965, shortly before the premiere. They discussed cancelling the show at the last minute, but somebody realized it was already in print in TV Guide. So they decided to run it once and bury it forever.

What they didn’t expect is that 45% of the viewing public tuned in to watch, and the show won an Emmy and a Peabody award. A lot of us have been watching ever since.

What is Christmas all about? Charles Schulz was most insistent: it’s about the birth of Jesus. It’s not about the aluminum trees, which went out of style in part because of the Peanuts special. It’s not about getting first prize in a house decorating contest. It’s not about telling Santa that you’ve been good, so he can reward you with “tens and twenties.”

“Oh no,” said Charles Schulz to producer Lee Mendelsohn, “if you take out the story of Jesus, there is no Christmas special.” A Christmas without Christ is no Christmas at all.

Of course, that is a disputed opinion. In 1965, only nine percent of all the Christmas shows on TV had any religious theme or symbolism,[1] and that was fifty years ago. These days, it is entirely possible to have a secular Christmas, and many people do.

As Lucy said to Charlie Brown, “Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

But here we are, you and I, the keepers of Christmas. We know what it’s all about, and we have heard the angels again this night: “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

This is good news of a great joy. It still is for all the people, even if they miss it or if they are weary of it, even if it prompts so much excess that it is hard to keep up with it. At the heart of Christmas is the birth of a Savior. He is born a child, so he will be vulnerable. His human birth sets aside his heavenly power as Lord, so he will be overlooked.

Jesus still makes a lot of people nervous. Not just the television executives and the advertising agencies, but kings like Herod who are threatened by his sovereignty. Those who pretend to have power so they can boss others around are cut short by the humility of a newborn child. Even all those kids who make fun of Charlie Brown and his little Christmas tree are silenced by the story of a God who comes to live among us.

The truth of Christmas is that God takes on vulnerable human flesh. God knows what it’s like to be blue at the holidays, and God also knows that unexpected joy empowers us to cut loose and dance.

So the message comes from the angels: “Don’t be afraid.” That’s the Good News. Don’t be afraid of a God who knows you as you are. Don’t be afraid of a God who loves you, in spite of your desire for a pile of “tens and twenties.” Don’t be afraid for God to come and find you, wherever you are tonight. God’s great Light will puncture the darkness and can interrupt you with joy.

“Don’t be afraid.” When Linus says those words to Charlie Brown and friends, he drops his security blanket.[2] Go back and look at the cartoon some time, it’s there. He doesn’t need to hang onto his old securities because he trusts what the angels said is true. “Unto you is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The sacred breaks into our secular. The power of Life invades a world obsessed with destruction. A humble child is born to upend the brutal Empire of Caesar. That’s the truth of it. So we can look into the dark sky and know the Light of the World has come. And we can pray that somehow tonight or tomorrow or in the days to come, that Light will shine upon us. “Light and life to all he brings” - and this is the promise of the Gospel for you.  

“Don’t be afraid.” A dark world has been punctured by the grace of God, and God is here among us. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Lind, Stephen J. "Christmas in the 1960s: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Religion, and the Conventions of the Genre" Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 26.1 (2014)
[2] “Just Drop the Blanket,” at

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Little One

Luke 1:39-45
Advent 4
December 20, 2015
William G. Carter
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and explained with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

A few weeks ago, a couple of our Presbyterians had a harsh discovery: somebody had ordered the wrong devotional booklets for Advent. It was an honest mistake. The plan was to order a few different varieties, each of them undated, so that if any of us wanted a devotional booklet for the season, they would have a choice. A catalog was found, a few varieties were selected and ordered, and then they were placed out on the countertop for people to choose.

The first Sunday after they arrived, I was greeting people at the back door when I overheard a brief conversation. Two of our folks had each taken an identical booklet with a very attractive cover. They were flipping through the pages, and to their shock, a good bit of the booklet was about Mary, the mother of Jesus. There was a page devoted to the Immaculate Conception, and another page about a holy day called the Solemnity of Mary.

This was getting their attention. “Look at this: it’s not just the Virgin Birth. It talks about the Assumption, whatever the Assumption is. And here – it refers to her as the Mother of God.” The two of them looked stunned. Then one of them blurted out, “These can’t be for us. We’re Presbyterians. We don’t talk about Mary.”

I didn’t catch how the conversation went on from there, but there’s some truth to what she said. Presbyterians don’t talk about Mary. Oh, we bring her out for a Sunday or two in December – like today – but pretty soon, we wrap her in blue tissue paper and return her to the attic. Mary doesn’t get as much attention as her son.

A Catholic priest once explained why. We were having coffee when the subject came up. He looked both ways, checked to make sure the coast is clear, and said, “You may have noticed the Catholic Church is run by a lot of guys. I think we focus so much on Mary because it’s a way for women to engage in the Christian faith. She welcomes all of us in the way the she first welcomed Christ.”

Then he said, “My question is why you Protestants don’t talk about her at all.” Good question. One quick answer is we don’t know much about her, other than she is the mother of our Lord. We can presume she was young; Palestinian brides were promised to the grooms not long after they were mature enough to bear children. From the few stories we have, we know she was a faithful Jew, a child of God’s covenant.

Mary doesn’t get a lot of ink in the New Testament, especially not compared to her Son. It is quite possible that, just as John the Baptist is quickly dismissed from the Gospel stories after he does his introductory work, Mary is equally downplayed to keep the spotlight on Jesus. She appears at the beginning of the story, and at the end of the story she takes her place at the foot of the cross. After the resurrection, Luke numbers her among the first circle of Christian believers (Acts 1:14). But then, she’s gone.

What do we say about her after that? Some years ago, I was boarding a tour bus outside of the ruins of Ephesus, that ancient city in present-day Turkey rivaled only by Rome and Alexandria. It’s an extraordinary place, and a few of you have been there. Someone in our tour group said, “Hey, look at this!” There was a sign pointing to the “House of the Virgin Mary.” We looked at one another, and somebody wondered if she might be at home.

According to the tradition, Jesus handed off his mother to the apostle John when he was on the cross. He said, “Take care of her; now she’s your mother.” (John 19:26-27). Decades later, John supposedly landed in Ephesus with Mary at his side. There was a house, they say it was her house, but who can now say? It was left open enough for all kinds of speculation … and a good bit of well-placed reverence.

She gave birth to Jesus, after all. She had other children after him, but that first-born boy came completely from the grace of God. He bore the Christ Child and all that came with it. That alone would mark her as special. There are songs that ask, “Mary, did you know” what was going to happen to your Son? Just remember what the old man Simeon pronounced on the day the baby Jesus would be dedicated in the Temple. He looked at Mary and declared, “Because of this little boy, a sword will pierce your soul.” (2:34-35) It’s a description of the best possible outcome of being a parent.

Indeed it would. If God brings a child into your life, it is holy invitation to set aside your self-important agenda and to offer yourself to this heavenly gift in swaddling clothes. If you take a child seriously, it will smash the protective wall around your heart and leave you vulnerable. That’s what love does – it makes you vulnerable.

I sat with a couple of parents in the emergency room. Their daughter had tipped her bike in an intersection, got scuffed up, had a cast on her arm, but was otherwise OK. Her parents were more shaken up than she was. The father blurted out, “I didn’t realize I could be this worried or this devoted.” He shook his head and said, “God, it’s a wonderful feeling.” I took his words to be a prayer.

This morning, the Gospel of Luke tells us this story of two women who are welcoming children into the world. In their time, in their culture, that would be regarded by men as an insignificant story, hardly worthy of the pages of scripture. But Luke knows better. God comes to us in the ordinary – and extraordinary – gift of a child. Children are born every day. That’s common. A child is one of the most generous gifts that God can give us.

Oh, how the world would be so much better if we welcomed every child!

Unfortunately, the world is still a mess. Maybe the whole galaxy is, too: I went to see the new Star Wars movie on opening night, and here’s a spoiler alert – the movie is full of dysfunctional families. There is brokenness and sin, difficulty and pain, and it pervades everything that we know.

But God has something else in mind, and that’s why God sends a baby to Mary. God’s angel said to her, “He will be holy, he will be great, he will rule over God’s people forever – and he will be yours to bear.” Hers is the womb that brings the grace and healing of God into the world. Her child Jesus shall heal all the God gives him to heal. All who love her child shall live by love. And it is Mary’s task to welcome him first.

She hears all of this, she knows all of this – so she runs to her relative Elizabeth, enters the house, and says, “Hello!” But no sooner does she arrive when Elizabeth does all the talking. The Holy Spirit of God is in her as well. Without any other introduction, she knows what Mary had come to announce, because the Holy Spirit is in her. The child in her womb gives her a great big kick, which she takes to mean the Holy Spirit is with her child. And the whole moment is described by two words: blessing and joy.

It is a blessing because it is God who is at work. The nature of a blessing is that we don’t bless ourselves - there is a Power greater than us, who loves us, who desires our healing, who comes to make all things well. God is beyond us, but comes to us. That’s the blessing.

And the blessing creates joy. Not merely happiness, but joy. Joy is that exhilarating freedom that lifts us beyond our circumstances. It is the way out when there is no other escape. It is the first sign of God’s holy repair when all else seems lost. It is, as the prophets call it, “light dawning in darkness.” It is the first signal that God has found us, that indeed God is with us, and that all appearances to the contrary, everything shall turn out well. That’s joy. 

And that’s why we talk about Mary. She is the first Christian, for who believes God has come in Jesus. She is also the first theologian, for we hear repeatedly that she ponders the Incarnation in her heart. She is the first practitioner of Christian hospitality: she welcomes the Word that her Son will come, and thus she welcomes the Incarnate God into her life. For her, faith is not just an idea, it’s a Child – and not just any child, but the Holy Child of God.

So we talk about Mary. Her presence in the Gospel story is a reminder that faith is not a bunch of ideas. It’s lived out in flesh and blood. Faith is singing with joy that God has heard our cry and comes to join us in the midst of our very human lives. Faith is taking care of each child entrusted to us, particularly when they are small and vulnerable. Faith is committing our time and love to those whom God has chosen to bring into our lives.

And just as the song says, faith is trusting that the baby that Mary delivers will soon deliver her[1] – and all of us who love him and trust him.  

That’s why we talk about Mary. A mother’s “yes” has changed the world.

(c) Bill Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “Mary, Did You Know?” by Mark Lowry. Lyrics available at

Saturday, December 12, 2015

If the Advent Candle Scorches Your Soul

Luke 3:7-18
Advent 3
December 13, 2015
William G. Carter

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance . .  . And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do? He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The Bible has no interest in tidying up John the Baptist. He is God’s Voice in the wilderness, standing beyond the boundary of civilized society and calling all people to prepare for the coming of God. From the sounds of it, he was blunt and rather direct.

When John appeared, a lot of people went out to hear him preach. They heard him say the Messiah is coming, and this inspired home. They wanted to get ready, to get baptized into his home and change their lives. John sees them come, and he yells out with sarcasm: “You are a pack of snakes, trying to wiggle away from the fire.” He doesn’t care about hurting anybody’s feelings. He is the voice in the wilderness.

Not only does John sound like a prophet, he dresses like one of the old-time prophets. His cloak comes from the hide of a camel, which means he also smells like one of the prophets. He is a force of nature, calling all people to prepare for the coming of God. They come, and they listen, and they want to know, “What must we do?”

Apparently it is not enough to be baptized. You have to do something with your life after the water has dried. You can’t sit around and say, “I’m saved from the fire.” No, your life has to “bear fruit,” he says. If you trust that God is coming, there has to be evidence in the way that you live. So the people ask, “What must we do?”

What is striking to me is what John doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Get yourself to church,” which is something I might say. I remember fourteen years ago, on the Sunday after 9-11, this church was full. There were folding chairs in the aisles. People were shaken up. They wanted comfort and security. They wanted to know the world was going to be OK.

A week later, attendance was back to normal. Apparently they got enough comfort and security to go back to the way they were. Either that, or they realized that going to church is not a lucky rabbit’s foot to keep trouble away. John doesn’t say, “Go to church,” sing some hymns, pray some prayers, and get inoculated from the danger. He doesn’t say that.

No, he understands that real change in our lives is not lived out in the worship sanctuary for an hour a week. Real change is how we live our lives in a world like this. So John goes for the heart – actually he goes for the pocketbook. Three times his earnest listeners ask, “What must we do?” Three times, he responds by speaking of money and possessions.

The general crowds ask, “If the Messiah is coming, what must we do?” John says, “If you have two coats, share with the person who has none, and do the same with your food.” So I looked in my hall closet and counted seven coats. I have seven coats. I asked the rest of my family, and they said I wasn’t allowed to tell you how many coats they have. John says, “Share with the needy.”

Then the tax collectors came up. They wanted to be baptized and get ready for the Messiah, so they said, “What should we do?” John looked at these people who were recruited and employed by the Roman Empire. It was a terrible system of domination. The job of the tax collector was to take money from their fellow peasants to pay for the Empire’s soldiers who occupied their towns. In turn, they could charge whatever additional fees they could get. John says, “Don’t collect any more than the amount prescribed for you.” That is, live modestly and don’t exploit your neighbors for financial gain.

Then some soldiers came – I think that means the soldiers of the foreign Empire, with all their weaponry and all their protective armor. Some of them wanted to be baptized too, so they asked, “What must we do?” John stared them down and said, “Don’t shake down any money from these people by threat or accusation, and be satisfied with the money you have.”

The Messiah is coming. Share your abundance, don’t plunder your neighbors for your own profit, and don’t extort or intimidate by violence. This is what you do. I suppose there is more we could do, but this is John’s list, as reported by the Gospel of Luke.

It’s so typical of Luke to talk about money. The Gospel of Luke must have been written for people who knew about the dark side of poverty, and who struggled with the darker side of affluence. And Luke knows what you and I know: that money divides family members against one another, that money ties up the judicial courts and the political system, and that money and possessions can be shared to build community or hoarded in ways that destroy community.

And when you have a huge imbalance between those who have everything and those who have nothing, you don’t have the kingdom of God. This is the Bible. This is what it says. Share, don’t plunder, don’t extort, for God is coming and we must be ready.

Maybe it’s hard for some of us to wrap our brains around John’s preaching. He intrudes upon the Grand American Christmas and splashes some cold water on the proceedings. His words are sharp and bracing – because they are the Gospel.

And from the conversation that about thirty of us had at last Wednesday night’s Advent study group, we know them to be true. There has to be more to Christmas, more to the birth of Christ in our world, than mere buying and selling of stuff. There has to be giving and sharing from deep within our hearts. It’s not enough to have an idea. The idea must be turned into action. It’s not enough to have a dream. The dream must be turned into a plan. It’s not enough to see a vision. The vision must have an open heart and generous hands.

So you and I: if Christ is coming and we wish to greet him, what must we do? Let me have you mull that over while I tell you a couple of stories.

Here is the first. Today we will sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It is a favorite of a lot of people, and it may surprise you that it almost didn’t make the cut to get into one of our hymnals. By definition, a hymn speaks to God or speaks about God – and God is never directly mentioned in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” There are angels, but they are singing above our heads. In fact, as Christmas carols go, this particular carol doesn’t even mention Christmas. But it was included because of the larger message.

The words were written by Edmund Sears, a pastor in Massachusetts. Sears was a Unitarian who believed very strongly in Jesus. When he wrote the carol in 1849, he was having a hard time of it. He had recently resigned a pastorate due to burn out. His voice was shot and his spirit was depressed, so he moved to a smaller parish and took a significant pay cut.[1] But he believed that above his own condition, the angels were singing.

Not only that, Sears was troubled by the state of the world around him. The Mexican-American War had just concluded, and he was no fan of war. So he wrote verse three:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long.
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong,
And we at war on earth hear not the tidings that they bring,
O, hush the noise and cease the strife to hear the angels sing.

Meanwhile, in his region of New England, the factories and mills are busting, but at the expense of factory workers. There were low wages, long hours, unsafe conditions, child laborers, and grinding poverty. So Sears composed verse four:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.[2]

There is a greater music around us and above us. Edmund Sears knew that, he trusted that, he bequeathed that message to us in his carol. But he also knew that the world can’t welcome the angelic song unless specific changes are made in how we treat one another, how we battle one another, and what we do with our economics. Because of our “sin and strife,” the world continues to be a mess, while above it, God declares justice and peace.

Here is the second story. In elegant Princeton, New Jersey, there are two Presbyterian churches. Nassau Church is the rich white church, surrounded by an Ivy League campus. At the other end of town is Witherspoon Church in an historically black neighborhood and not so rich. In one of the wealthiest zip codes in America, there are two churches divided by race and economic situation.

So it turns out that a white minister named David Prince was serving as the interim pastor at Witherspoon Church. He heard bitter stories of how one of the pastors of that African American congregation had been driven out of town by the white ministers, so he began to look into it and discovered it was true.

The Rev. William Robeson served the Witherspoon Church. He fought for the rights of black people and preached the Gospel of racial equality. In the year 1900, he was considered a trouble maker by the community. He just wouldn’t keep quiet about the injustice of the Jim Crow laws or the indignities that his people suffered. So he spoke up – and the community leaders appealed quietly to the white Presbyterian leaders, and he was removed from his pulpit. He hadn’t done anything legally wrong. He was merely considered uppity. After his dismissal, he and his former church both fell on hard times.

David Prince uncovered the story, which had been buried in a leather-bound book of Presbytery meeting minutes. As he shared the truth, everybody agreed that this couldn’t stand. So a month ago, at the 175th anniversary dinner of the Witherspoon church, there was a formal apology, a request for forgiveness in the name of Christ, and many tears of reconciliation.[3]

Then the Synod of the Northeast presented a grant of $173,000 to pay the remaining mortgage on Rev. Robeson’s home, where his son, the famous entertainer Paul Robeson had been born. The church had recently repurchased the home, and has struggled to keep up with the payments. Now the wider church has given it to them as a gift, to make things right. Harold Delhagen, the synod executive, said, “I can’t think of a better use of mission money. We have to do justice and not just talk about it.”[4]

“For lo, the days are hastening on…” God is coming among us – so what must we do? John says share what we have with those who need it most. Don’t take advantage of the people around us. Don’t use force or threat for personal gain. In short, treat your neighbors even better than you wish to be treated, for that is the shape of grace in our world.

This is the good news of God, and the One who embodies God’s grace is coming.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See, for instance, the biographical information at
[2] Brian Wren retells the story in Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) pp. 341-345.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

God's Promise to the Filthy

Malachi 3:1-4
Advent 2
December 6, 2015
William G. Carter

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

A couple of men were chatting over coffee last week. They were talking over the news of the day, holiday traffic, and neighborhood light displays. Inevitably the conversation turned to Christmas, and one of them asked, “Is there anything you want for Christmas this year?” The other one chuckled, “I want to get through Christmas unscathed.”

It was the first time I ever heard somebody say it, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. Despite all the excitement and the artificial light, this is a difficult season for a lot of people. If you have any sickness in your family, it’s hard to keep up with your own expectations. If your loved ones have scattered across the country, there will be lines at the post office, and worse lines in the airports. If money is tight, your kids and grandkids are still bombarded by commercials for toys that cost way too much money. And if you are still grieving the loss of somebody you love, there is the weight of carrying on long-established traditions while there is an empty chair at the kitchen table.

Yes, this can be a tough time for a lot of us. It is hard to simply say so. If you are feeling blue, somebody could accuse you of being a Grinch. If you are watching your budget, you could be renamed Ebenezer Scrooge. It may be enough to just keep your head down and get through it all, unscathed and intact.

Today’s scripture texts don’t relieve the difficulty. John the Baptist is sent by God to the Jordan River. In the name of God, he barks out a message of change: “God is coming,” he says. “It’s time to turn around and come home.” 

Maybe you saw the Christmas card on Pinterest.[1] There’s the snarling face of John, who says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you from the wrath that is to come?” And inside is the message, “From our house to yours, have a wonderful Advent!”

Or there is the prophet Malachi, whom we heard a minute ago. Someone mentioned a trip to the shopping mall. The parking was terrible, the crowd was surging and impatient. Over top of it all, the management had decided to play some classical music, perhaps to calm the crowd. There was a selection from Handel’s Messiah: “Who can abide the day of his coming?” – but from the looks of it, nobody was abiding it very well.

Handel took that text from the prophet Malachi, a shadowy figure who spoke almost 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Five hundred years is a long time to keep sounding a warning. Malachi is the prophet who says God is going to come and burn up all the evildoers and the arrogant (4:1-2). When John the Baptist appears, he uses pretty much the same script. God is coming. Who will be able to stand before him?

In fact, when an angel predicts the birth of John, he repeats some of the phrases that the prophet Malachi used: “There will be a messenger like the great prophet Elijah. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children.”[2]

The point of all this is the necessity of change. God is coming, we can’t stay the way we are. And to hear the prophet Malachi or the prophet John, nobody gets through Christmas unscathed. That is, not if it is to be a holy day.

So here is the Advent question: where in our lives do we need to make a change? What are some of the bad habits that we can’t do any more? Where have we tripped and fallen, and need to get back up? What regrets are we holding? What mistakes have we made?

And then the big one: how have we lived without God – and, in any practical sense, how are we going to return? Anybody have a list? Let me give you a minute to inhabit your own list . . .

The prophet speaks of change. No doubt, each of us can think of some correction of behavior or some scrubbing of the soul. But listen to how the prophet Malachi understands this. It’s not primarily a matter of self-improvement, although all of us are imperfect and everybody can do something to improve. In fact, if you listen to Malachi, the emphasis is not so much on us and our efforts, but on God. It is God who will change us, God who will purify.

Malachi uses two pictures to describe the work of God. It is like a refiner’s fire, he says. Something as valuable as silver or gold will be heated in the furnace, and all the impurities burned away. All the unnecessary material will be removed. All the ugliness will be purged. The fire of God's Spirit will do this.

What I haven’t pointed out, of course, is that when Malachi says this, he’s taking aim at the clergy, at the professional religious people. In his short little book, he has nothing good to say about the ministers and priests of his time. They have offered second-rate sacrifices to God (1:7-10), they’ve preached lousy sermons (2:4-9), and they haven’t kept up with their tithing (3:8-10). God says, “You are robbing me! You are not giving your best.”  With this, God says, “I will purify you as a furnace refines silver.”

And Malachi speaks of fuller’s soap. That was a strong lye-based soap that scrub out the dirt from your clothes. It was very caustic, but it got the job done.

I remember when my mom taught me how to throw a dirty pair of blue jeans into the washer. I never knew you could lift the lid and put them in; she always did that. One day, she said, “Throw your dirty clothes in the washer.” I had some blue jeans with some grass stains, so I threw them in. Then I did something that I had watched her do – I added some bleach. In fact, they were really dirty, so I added a half-gallon of bleach. That will do the job! 

Can you imagine what kind of job it did? All the grass stains were gone, along with most of the color and a good bit of the cloth. But whatever was left of my blue jeans was clean!

So here’s what I am wondering: maybe we aren’t supposed to get through Christmas “unscathed.” Maybe, just maybe, God is doing something to shake us up, to invite us home, and to make us more like Jesus.

Take a moment to go back to your list of imperfections: is there anything on that list that God is changing in you? That could be a sign of the seasonal scrubbing that God wishes to do with you. Consider a few things:

If you are worn out by the hustle and bustle of the shopping season, why not stand up to it? Rather than purchase a lot of gifts, invest in some experiences. Who are the people you love, and how can you spend time with them? Spending time is more costly and generous than merely spending money.

If you are dismayed by the ceaseless reports of violence in our world, and they are many, find some way to work for peace. One way to start is to seek out somebody who is not like you, and work to befriend them. Take seriously the differences between you. Work to understand the other’s point of view. Find places where your common humanity intersects. Invite them to eat with you, and pay for the meal. Peace has to start face to face. Will it fix the world? Not yet, but it might begin to fix you.

If you are sad, lonely, or angry for any reason, don’t try to outrun how you feel. Let the feelings come, because we can’t turn off our feelings. At the same time, we don’t need to let our feelings possess us. There is more to this good life from God than how we happen to feel about it on any given day. So enlarge your point of view – go for a walk and get some fresh air, do something for somebody else, reach out to a person in need. Or my favorite: pray your discontent - name it and hand it off to God. If you can’t fix something, let God be the Savior. That is God’s job.

One more thing: if there’s any part of Christmas that seems empty to you, listen to what Malachi said to the religious leaders of his time: they made half-hearted sacrifices to God that really weren’t sacrifices at all. They went to the temple to offer their leftovers, and never offered their hearts. They looked for shortcuts, rather than keep the covenantal commitments. They said all the righteous words, but their souls were not engaged.

Here’s the invitation. God sets a Table before us. God offers to meet us here in bread and cup of Christ. God invites us to come, and promises to welcome us as we are. So here is the place, now is the time. Come to the living God and offer yourself. Bring your doubts and your fears, drop your burdens and forget your impurities. Hear once again how much God loves you, and welcome the grace of Jesus Christ.

Maybe you think you can get to this Table unscathed, but I will be praying that you will be transformed.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Compare Malachi 4:5-6 to Luke 1:17.