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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011-12-18 4th Advent Sermon

Voices of Christmas: The Star
Isaiah 40:26a, 28a, Psalm 19:2-4
Luke 2:8-20

I am the voice of the star, the voice of all that God has made.
I am the voice of the heavens, declaring God's glory.
I am the voice of the skies, proclaiming the work of his hands.
I am the voice of the ocean waves, thunderously applauding God's Might.
I am the voice of the lion, the eagle, the whale, and the whisper of the butterfly.
I am the voice of all creation and I bear witness to God's majesty.
For all that God has made, I am the voice of the star.
With everything that has breath, I am the voice that praises the Creator born into his own creation.


Each Sunday this month, we've been listening to The Voices of Christmas. We've heard from Israel, from Isaiah, and then, last Sunday, from our own Angel Chorus when our Choir sang a Cantata, entitled, "The Voices of Christmas." It's almost as if we planned it. The voice parts have been read aloud by narrators, but if you look at the scriptures in the Bible, they're written as poetry and were originally intended to be sung. Israel sings. Isaiah sings. Mary sings. And in today's reading, all the world sings praise to God, our creator. Even the butterflies. Even the whales. Even the rocks.

I like to sing. I think I sound better than rocks. But just because a person enjoys doing something doesn't mean he or she does it well. Like, singing. I like to sing, even though our daughters say it hurts their ears and makes them cry. If I don't practice, how will I ever improve? A little encouragement from loved ones might help.

Or maybe I should just quit. Maybe I should accept as fact the opinion that the sound of two rocks beaten together is qualitatively better than my singing. I'm guessing that most of you who don't sing have made similar choices. I see you, during the hymns. I see your sad eyes, staring at the floor. I know what you've been through. Your family made faces. Your dog howled. Your music teacher gave your parents' money back. Oh I know.

When you were a child and knew not the stinging darts of disapproval, you dreamed of stage and spotlight. But then, you grew up. You put away childish things. Because it's better to put dreams away than be embarrassed by them. Right?


I wonder how many people stopped waiting for their Savior, because it was just too embarrassing. I wonder how many people gave up singing for a Messiah because it was too childish. I wonder how many of us give in to despair, I wonder how many of us give way to sensibility, I wonder how many of us stop singing God's praise because someone made fun or might make fun of how we sound, or how we look, or we're worried what people might say.

As far as we can tell, humans are the only part of God's creation that can feel ashamed for how we are. And that's not all bad. Sometimes people do shameful things and should feel ashamed. But far, far more often is that we innocently, maybe even joyfully express who we are and what we feel, and then the group or the person we were trying to impress laughs at us, or is embarrassed by us, or turns away from us. And we swear by all that's in us that we'll never let that happen again. We put away the music. We give up the dance. We put away the dreams. We hide those crazy ideas. We put away the childish things, and grow up.

But, the rocks aren't ashamed when they get stepped on. The trees aren't ashamed when their leaves fall off. The moon's not ashamed when it's eclipsed into darkness. The tide's not ashamed when it goes out.The bird's not ashamed when it has to fly south. And we don't feel ashamed for them, we the inventors and masters of shame, not even we shame them for a less-than-optimal performance. They're just being the way God made them. In fact some people see beauty in nature's ebbing. The poets and artists - themselves often shamed for not having more practical majors - those romantic misfits see eternal beauty in these things, hear in them God's song of eternal and everlasting love, and so they sing out in biblical praise,

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever; 
who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever;
who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever;
who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever....
(Psalm 136)

We worship the God whose steadfast love endures forever, even in the leaves that fall, even in the moon that hides, even in the birds who no longer sing. So why is it that we let OUR songs of praise be cut short by the longing to be liked, the pressure to be productive, the urge to be adult? Why are we so afraid?

If the singers and poets, if the the psalmists and the prophets, if they had been ashamed of who they were, half the Bible would disappear.


Pablo Picasso said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

Jesus said something like that. There was the time people were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples (the budding professional religious grown-ups) saw it, they sternly (because that's how grown-ups talk, isnt it? They sternly) ordered them to stop. But Jesus called for them and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:15-17)

Big people, beware. The kingdom of heaven is kind of like the good rides at Dollywood, except in reverse. "If you are TALLER than this sign, you may not enter." Those of us who are vertically challenged are going, "Yeah! Hope you giants like it warm." But we know Jesus is speaking metaphorically. Heaven doesn't have maximum height restrictions. Or minimum seriousness restrictions. Jesus is not talking about getting you into heaven; he's talking about getting heaven into you. And if the kingdom of God is really going to be within you, as Jesus told us, you've got to have some imagination to play with.

You know how kids have those awesome imaginations? Give them a box, and they'll play for hours. Give them an Xbox and... Bad example. Kids have these awesome imaginations and can see stuff that isn't there. That doesn't mean it's not real. The Apostle Paul said something like that. He wrote a letter to the church in Corinth telling them that they should hold onto their hope, hold onto their dreams because, "we (meaning, we Christians) look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:18)

If you're a Christian, you have to believe in things we light candles for. Things like, hope, peace, joy, and love. You can't see these things. But you can feel them. And you can definitely feel when they're not there. Too often, they're the first things grown-ups cut.

We were at a band concert a couple of weeks ago, and one of the band directors got up to do his speech. I say, "his speech," because he gives the same one pretty much every time. (Probably what people who come on Christmas Eve say about me.) He's well known for his, "we must support the arts in public education" speech. And, you know, when you're speaking to an auditorium filled with parents and grandparents whose kids are sitting up on the stage, well, it's a little easier sell than the state legislature. So, the band director stands up, and I'm thinking, here we go again. And he starts talking about how great it is to work with such special children, and he means "special" in a good way, and how glad he is to see us all here. Yada, yada, yada.

And he gets to where we all know he's going, "Yes, we all know how hard economic times are right now. Everyone's talking about making sacrifices. Everyone's talking about making cuts. And we all know the first thing to get cut is always... joy."

Joy??? That is not the usual support the arts speech.

The first thing to get cut is always... joy.

Suddenly, I realize, he's not speaking, he's preaching. And he's good. He makes me wonder, why is it that those things that are childlike always fall under "discretionary." Does anyone really believe joy is optional? Would you want to live without hope, without peace, without joy or without love? A lot of people do. But not by choice. Someone, somewhere along the way has told them, "No. You can't have those things. No, you can't feel that way. No, you can't do that. It's childish. It's embarrassing. Grow up.

So, there are shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And one of them gets a priority message on his Blackberry. There's going to be a mandatory staff meeting (staff, get it?) in Bethlehem, in the manger behind the inn. They'll need to bring copies of their monthly TPS reports and expense vouchers. They're going to have to share the conference space with a donkey. And an unmarried couple who may be giving birth. And the shepherds look at one another and go, "Sigh. It's always something." Isn't that how grown-ups get notified? Isn't that how we respond?

Here's what really happened. There was a star. And then an angel came. And then a whole choir of heavenly host appeared in the clouds and started singing. And the shepherds said, "Holy smokes! Let's go see what this is all about!" And they hitched up their robes and ran. And they shouted. Laughing all the way. That's not in the Bible, but that's exactly what they did. You know how I know? Because that's what a child would do.

Unashamed. Unembarrassed. Of course that's how the first people who saw Jesus were. They always are.


I'm talking now to those of you who are grown-ups. I'm guessing there's something you used to just love doing, something that brought you good tidings of great joy that you've given up, because it's too frivolous. Or put away, because there's just not enough time, or not enough money to enjoy. You know how I know? Because those are always the first things to get cut.

Jesus, faith, God. Those are "first things," wouldn't you say? Joy. Hope, peace and love. Wouldn't you say those are priority things, important things, "first things," too? What a shame if we let ourselves get so serious, we let those get cut? We might even say it would be, shameful. Ironic.

You know, the opposite of joy isn't sadness. The opposite of joy is seriousness. The deeply serious are always cutting those "first things" first because... they're too childish, or too time-consuming, or too wasteful. We grown-ups understand these things.

If you're a grown-up, I want you to think about something. I want you to think about your choices, here in this week before Christmas. I want you to think about the choices you make this week. Think about your choices as you're making them, whatever they are. Serious, trivial, almost unconscious. I want you to think about your choices and ask yourself if you're choosing to hold onto the "first things" of God, or if you're letting them get cut. Think about the choices you're making and ask yourself if you're choosing things that are seen over things that are unseen. Ask yourself if you're choosing hope, peace, joy, or love... or something else. Something more mature. Something less embarrassing. Something no so... shameful.

For an awful, awful lot of grown-ups shame and guilt, or the worry about being shamed or found guilty, are the #1 and #2 first things on your mind. Maybe you've done some shameful things in your life. And maybe you're carrying that guilt on your shoulders, like a 100 pound backpack, everywhere you go. You can almost feel it, weighing on you, pressing on you.

Which is funny. Because to the rest of us, it's invisible. I wonder. At what point did you stop believing in the good things that are unseen and start believing in the bad ones?

At what age do we trade the dreams for the shame?


Last Sunday night, we had a talent show here in the sanctuary. Maybe it's kind of odd to have a talent show to help us celebrate Christmas, but then again, maybe not. It was a great time. I, personally, really enjoyed being a horse's front-end, for a change.

I want to say something especially to you kids who sang, or danced, or played instruments. You were awesome. We are so proud of you all. Thank you, for sharing your gifts. Which is what Christmas is about, isn't it? Sharing gifts that God gives us. If you're a kid, and you've got talent, whether you share it on stage, or on a soccer field, or in a classroom, or however. If you're a kid and you've got talent - and you do - keep practicing, keep learning, keep having fun with it, and most of all, keep sharing it. We grown-ups need you to.

I didn't know they were going to do this, but our Tech Team decided it would be a good idea to broadcast the talent show live, across the Internet, to the world. Or, at least, those of the world with computers, who tuned in to our website. We got a comment back from one of our Internet viewers, who said, "It was so refreshing to see a church having that much fun together."

It kind of made me sad, because I realized this person's church must not have that much fun together. They must not have much joy in being church. And it made me grateful to be here. And it made me want to never take one second of our joy for granted.

Maybe my singing brings me more joy than it does the people around me. Maybe my gift is appreciating those who DO have beautiful singing voices. Every single one of us has the gift, which practiced well can become a talent, every one of us has the talent of giving thanks. Every one of us has the talent for giving thanks for God's hope, giving thanks for God's peace, giving thanks for God's joy, and and giving thanks for God's love. Every one of us has the gift, the talent, for giving thanks for God's love as it sings forth from rocks and trees, from lakes and streams, from oceans and from butterfly wings. From stars, from angels, from heavenly choirs.

And even from each other.

Sent with Writer.

- James