About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Monday, December 22, 2003

05-Ceve-W-C Christmas Eve 2003
Luke 2:1-20
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2003

The Christmas Story as a whole, as told by the Apostle Luke, in Chapter 2, verses 1-20, reading from the King James Version:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

There’s something special about hearing those words. They sound so majestic read from the King James. Jesus is a “babe lying in a manger.” Mary is “espoused” and “great with child.” “And it came to pass,” is like the Bible’s, “Once upon a time.” The words themselves are a sign of peace and goodwill in a world that’s sore afraid.

I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be like at your house. But I can guarantee you that by tomorrow afternoon, our house is going to look like Toys-R-Us opened a franchise in our living room. There’ll be ribbons popping and paper tearing, and lots of squealing. And then Kristen and the girls will wake up, and there’ll be even more popping and tearing and squealing. My big present this year is a new video camera, which, for practical reasons, I already have. My job will be recording the joyous mayhem, so late in the afternoon we can relive the morning, over and over and over. Christmas day is loud, Christmas day is wonderful, but it’s not anything like the little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Our Christmas rocks and rolls like Big Bird hopped up on too many D Cell batteries. The quiet, the peace, the magical words that, like Mary, we ponder in our hearts, come tonight. For a lot of us, Christmas Eve is Christmas. Christmas Eve is the Christmas of kings and of THE King.

Tonight is our time to take a deep breath, and to let Christmas fill our souls. Tonight is our time to be like the shepherds, to bask in the glory of the Lord shone around us. Tomorrow will bring a different kind of time. Tomorrow we’ll have gone our separate ways, and will be celebrating who knows how in the comfort of our own homes. But tonight we’re in the household of the King, gathered around his table, before a tree signed in his monograph, beside a cross crowned with his glory. May we all take a few moments to ponder these things in our hearts.

If you look around the sanctuary tonight, you may see many of the same people you expect to see every year, keeping tradition by sitting in the same pews they sit in every year. Which is good, because if you move around too much it really messes me up. You may see the faces of people you don’t know. Or people whose faces are familiar but whose name you can’t remember and it’s driving you crazy because you know they’re going to come up to you and you’re going to have to go, “Hi…. It’s so good to see you again, and Look! There’s Dennis McCurry!” On the night of the birth of our Savior, who brings forgiveness, even to people with faulty memory cells, we pause to remember HIS name, even if we can’t remember many others.

If you listen to the sounds of the sanctuary tonight, you may hear many of the same hymns and carols we sing every year, keeping tradition by letting us our songs employ and harking at the herald angels. Something I hadn’t noticed until this year is the hymns are about equally divided between songs about staying awake and songs about sleeping in peace. That’s appropriate for a night in which most parents are half-awake and most kids are only half-asleep. There’s so much about Christmas that can only be said in song. Even if we can’t carry a tune, the music of Christmas sings to our souls. The familiar scriptures, too, the same words we hear every year, keep the beat of God’s message in our hearts.

And, if you taste what Christ himself offers tonight…. Until recently, I had no idea how much candy kids can consume at Christmastime. Visions of sugarplums turn to nothing but plumb sugar-induced hallucinations. I’ve heard so many grown-up people say, “Well, I probably shouldn’t, but…” as they grab an extra slice of fudge. There’s so much sweetness to over-indulge in. No wonder there are so many hymns about the “Sweet little Jesus child.” What else could he be? But the meal Jesus prepares and invites us to share is more balanced. There’s sweetness in the grapes, but there’s sour in the dough of the bread. There’s sweetness in the birth, but sour in the sacrifice. Which is appropriate because another year of both sweet and sour is behind us, and another year of both is about to come. But tonight we stop to remember that Jesus is Lord over both the sweet and the sour. Jesus is Lord over our indulgence and our omission. In this time of so much rich food, and so many dreams of rich living, Jesus offers us simply himself in a humble taste of God’s kingdom.

Tomorrow morning Christmas will be here. But if you look, listen and taste – Christmas is here tonight, too. Because what’s here – because the heavenly Host here – is absolutely the true Spirit of Christmas. A lot of what we do is familiar, because we do it every year. We can thank our God that Jesus does the same things every year, too. Year in and year out, day in and day out, in the language of both kings and shepherds, Christ the Savior is born. And we can keep these things in our hearts, and ponder them all year long. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.
Luke 01 39-45 Mary and Elizabeth
“The Sound of Home”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
December 21, 2003

Today’s scripture marks a change in tone. In the past weeks, our scripture lessons have been about John the Baptist. John stood in the Jordan river and shouted at the people to “Repent!” from all their sinful ways. John had an angry tone.

I want pause for a minute to take a quick poll. How many of you have been to the mall in the past week? How many of you have been to a Wal-Mart? (doesn’t have to be a “super” Wal-Mart, any kind will do.) How many of you have been to the Post Office in the past week? How many of you have sat in extraordinarily long traffic or stood in extraordinarily long lines?

You, like John the Baptist, may have had an angry tone. You, also, may have wanted to shout at the people to “Repent!” (or something like that). I try not to use bad language in front of our daughters. Like most parents, I’d prefer they learn it from TV. So instead I do what I like to call the Marge Simpson Growl. Whenever Marge gets upset, instead of saying bad words, she growls like this: “Mrrrrrrr.” This time of year, the kids hear me going “Mrrrrrr” a lot, and even little Anna has learned to make the sound. Whether your angry sound is a growl or a curse upon the loins of other shoppers, I’m guessing that in these days most of us haven’t been too far from the tone of John the Baptist. If only in that respect, we’re in tune with scripture.

But now the tone of scripture takes a dramatic change. Now, after all the shouting, the scene changes from the crowded riverside to a place on the peaceful side of the hills, where there’s a tiny cottage at the end of a path. Instead of a big river, there’s a trickling stream just past the backyard. There’s a front porch and a couple of rockers. A little grove of olive trees on the side. It’s not much. But it’s the retirement home Elizabeth and Zechariah had been dreaming of all these years. Not having any kids, they were able to save a pretty fair amount. That is, not having any kids until, well, let’s just say Zechariah and Elizabeth were “surprised” when she turned up “with child.”

So now, instead of a wild-eyed prophet clothed in camel’s hair, we have a mother-to-be in an apron whose ties don’t reach all the way around anymore. Instead of splashing the sinful, her hands hold her lower back as she navigates around her small house that’s about to get a whole lot smaller. She’s trying to straighten up without bending over because her favorite little cousin Mary is coming for a visit. Seems like they’re both in the same predicament. One old, one young, but this being with child is uncharted water for both of them. Elizabeth would welcome a kindred soul who could talk without raising an eyebrow.

The tone of scripture has changed. From “Mrrrrrr,” it’s now the murmur of a lullaby. No more “Repent! Repent! You wretched sinners!” As we get nearer and nearer to Christmas, the word of God sounds more like, “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word….”

You see, God has more than one sound. The grown child of Elizabeth – angry, prophet John – shouts that Jesus is coming and we’d better get back home and change our tone. And yes, we need to remember that God growls at us. Growls at our stupidity. Growls at how we defiantly stand in God’s way. But Mary and Elizabeth are prophets, too. The tone of their prophesy is the song of a mother’s love. And just as Elizabeth greeted Mary and welcomed her into her house, the closer we get to Christmas, the closer we get to hearing the prophetic voice of God gently say, “Welcome home.”

There was a child in Elizabeth’s tummy that leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting. I know a lot of children that leap for joy at Christmas. They’ll also leap for candy, leap for presents – this time of year, they’re just leaping. Lord help the school teachers who try to accomplish any kind of lesson plan. The answer to the eternal question, “Can you please sit still?” is, “No.” No they can’t. They’re children and as long as there’s the hope of anything more than a lump of coal in their stockings, they’re going to leap and squirm. That’s simply the nature of kids.

It wouldn’t be too far of a leap to say that within each of us, there’s a child who wants to jump for joy over Christmas. We’re all just kids at heart, and in our hearts we know these are special days. It shows in the little extra love that goes into the cookies. It shows in the proliferation of light-up plastic Santas in the yard. Christmas is time to let loose of the child within, to not worry so much about the parts of us that shake when we laugh like a bowl full of jelly. Sing louder, laugh harder, let the child leap for joy within you.

But within each of us there’s also a longing for a place called “home.” A home where we’re the long-lost relative welcomed back. A home where we’re understood. A home where our sins – while not overlooked – are seen in perspective. A home where the good within us shines. More than the child within, it’s the soul within us that longs for the gentle prophesy of Christmas. Christmas is time to let loose of the soul within. Love like nobody’s watching. Give like you don’t need anything. Hope that tomorrow’s going to be alright. Expect your distant relative Jesus to leap for joy when you show up at his door – home – just in time for the holidays. You are God’s child. And it’s simply the nature of children to want to leap at Christmas.

Where is home, and how do you get there? In other times people called this home the Kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is hard to see in a world that goes “Mrrrrr.” It’s hard for us to see God when that’s the tone of life. Home, kingdom – whatever the name, it’s not a place, really. It’s more of a feeling. And so our prophets of the kingdom are now two expectant mothers, people whose feelings are unusually intense. These women are sharing the same wavelength, literally sharing the same home for a while.

This is the time of year when a lot of us are going home. We drive, we fly. We visit the places and the people around whom we tried to grow up. We reminisce about silly stuff – about the time a brother hit us over the head with a turkey leg, or the year the cat pulled down the Christmas tree. But it’s never quite the same, is it? We’re older and wider. I mean wiser. And wider. It’s easier to see the cracks in the walls. We may associate home with people or a place, but in our hearts we know what we’re looking for is more than any person or place could be.

To get to the soul’s home, which is the kingdom of the heavenly Father, we can’t drive, we can’t fly. We call what we’re after this time of year the Christmas Spirit, after all. It’s not the Christmas Action or the Christmas Thought. It’s not the Christmas Accomplishment or even the Christmas Present. Not really. Although we often act as though it is. But we know better. If accomplishments, actions, thoughts and presents are all we’re after, we’ll most likely enter and leave the season going, “Mrrrrr.” Because no matter what we do or act or think or accomplish, there’s always something more that we could have done, or acted, or thought, or accomplished. No matter how hard we try, we know these aren’t the way. And so we leave the season no closer to home than when we began.

In a sense, a heavenly home has to find us. And so the great act of prophetic faith in today’s scripture is simply this: Elizabeth opens the door to Mary and says hello. In that alone, scripture says, her soul was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the child within her leaped for joy. Elizabeth’s best gift to Mary – her blessing – was these words: “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” When the tone of your life changes… when your heart shines with the light of hope, peace, joy and love… when you simply believe there is fulfillment in what God has spoken to you… you ARE blessed. You may not be completely home, but you’re a lifetime closer than when you began.

So the little cottage in the hills may not have looked like much, but it was home enough for God, and God’s son, and God’s Holy Spirit. When the evening came, and all the chores were done, Elizabeth and Mary may have lowered themselves into the front porch rocking chairs with a combined “Mrrrrr.” And then looked at each other and laughed. What a sight they must have been, these two unlikely mothers-to-be – one too old, one too young, the most improbable prophets of God’s word. They looked up at the stars and they smelled the breeze. They felt the promise of God moving within them. And to the creaking rhythm of their chairs, they began to hum. If you or I had been there, we might have said it sounded like a lullaby. Or a Christmas carol. Or maybe just a tune about how good it is to be home.