Traditional Candlelight Communion Service
anthem : 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' (arr. Forrest) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director
text : Luke 2: 1 - 20 :: reader : Rev Courtney Richards
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
special music : 'O Holy Night' (Adams) :: Todd Maxwell, tenor; Susie Monger-Daugherty, piano
My childhood bedroom was a haven. I shared it with my older brother until he bailed on me in his late middle school years for the greener pastures of the basement bedroom. I couldn’t blame him. I moved to the basement myself when he graduated from high school. Our bedroom had patterned gold carpet and a little nerf basketball hoop that hung atop our closet door. Matt and I had many a knock-down, drag-out, epic one-on-one NBA final-esque match-ups on that hoop. I’d read choose your own adventure stories on the floor and my brother and I would create our own Masters of the Universe storylines with our He-Man action figures. Many summer nights I fell asleep to the soothing voice of Denny Matthews – long time radio announcer for the Kansas City Royals as I listened to my heroes George Brett and Bo Jackson crack another home run or Dan Quisenberry come in for the save – or to blow it. Christmas Eve in my little haven of a room however was a different story. The door would stay cracked open ever so slightly. My brother seemed to have no issue going to sleep on the top bunk but I laid there wide-eyed trying to reason with Bo Jackson from his Black and Blue postered spot on my wall about how Christmas was going to go down that year.
I must have been seven years old. With no Royals game to soothe the brainwaves, I stilled myself in the silence of that little room in full knowledge that Santa wouldn’t come if I was still awake and for the love of the little baby Jesus Christ, I could not go to sleep. Eyes shut, I lay and listen. The wind picked up a bit and, “What was that?” I asked Bo as I heard chimes outside of the window – surely those belonged to Santa’s sleigh. “Don’t move!” was my mantra. But after three seconds which seemed like three dog-days-of-summer baseball innings, I couldn’t remain still any longer so I devised a quick plan to bolt down the hallway to my parent’s room. I hopped in my parent’s bed with a racing heart and eyes peeled on the hallway through their door which I had left cracked open. My parents tried to calm me but I whispered forcing as much breath as I could saying, “Santa’s here!” “I heard the bells (which I knew for a fact could not have been our sweet neighbor Mary Micalivech’s porch chimes) and I know he’s here.” In our home without a fireplace, it was common knowledge that my folks arranged for Santa to enter through the front door. And though I must have missed the sound of the squeaky door opening or our dogs barking at the jolly intruder, there he was, the swift passing of the red sleeve of his coat – just down the hall from my vantage point. I saw it with my own eyes. “Don’t move!” I was paralyzed with excitement. After waiting what was deemed an appropriate amount of time, I was released to investigate. I discovered what Christmas had left behind – half eaten cookies, an empty glass with only a few milk bubbles remaining in the bottom, and strangely wrapped presents for my brother, sister and me on their usual spot where Santa left them year after year — the piano bench ever so slightly pulled out from its typical resting place. Clear evidence confirming all I had experienced that evening. Bo Jackson and I were in agreement. Christmas had come.
What do you need tonight to know that Christmas has come? We may do some of the same things year after year – there are some traditions and songs and family moments that may seem routine but you are different this year. You are. The events and shifts and relationships and experiences and questions and mysteries and all that you’ve encountered since last Christmas shapes the way you approach Christmas this year — and it changes what you need tonight to know that Christmas has come. I’ve lived a lot of life since that brush with Santa as a child and yet some of the questions still remain.
There was a couple who brought home their newborn baby from the hospital all excited to start life “for real” at home as a family of four. Mom, dad, and baby I mentioned. The fourth? A precocious four-year old sister who tells her parents: “I want to talk to my new little brother alone.” The parents, knowing this whole addition is an adjustment for their daughter wanted to honor her request. So big sister enters her brother’s nursery closing the door behind her. Her parents put their ears to the nursery door and listen as the little girl says to her new brother: “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!” It doesn’t take long for us to forget. This little girl represents most of us, caught in between knowing and forgetting and wanting to know again. Life gets hard and thick and complex and crises-laden and we begin to forget why Christmas came in the first place. In fact, we start to leave Christmas behind. Sure, we mask it with a chorus of “Merry Christmas!”-es and scramble again to gain control of life, gain and gift possessions but that is, for the most part, us trying to fill the void. And I understand. It’s not hard to lose the spirit. It’s super tempting to put that Christmas wonder of childhood into storage along with the seventh-grade artwork, baseball cards, and high school letter jacket that your parents don’t want to store for you at their place any longer. “Christmas has come?” “Don’t think so.” “Hardly.” If you feel this way… Christmas ain’t coming this year!… you’re not alone. It has been a thought of some most every year.
Madeleine L’Engle once beautifully put it like this:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
How about that? Love still takes the risk of birth. With every reason to set Christmas aside, Christmas says, “No. I’m coming again.” What do you need tonight to know that Christmas has come again?
The beloved story from Luke’s gospel has always been one of my very favorite narratives in all of scripture. Emperor Augustus had called for the census. He was business as usual that first Christmas – he didn’t even know he had any need of Christmas. Maybe we know that feeling sometimes. Mary and Joseph needed a place to stay for Christmas to come – an inn keeper unknowingly made room for Christmas to find him. Sometimes a simple act of hospitality brings Christmas into our lives too. But those shepherds are the ones that always get me. Watching their flocks by night – working the graveyard shift – on the hillside drinking a QT Rooster Booster and a cheese taquito from the roller grill when an Angel shows up: “Yeah, hi! Christmas just happened and it’s for you!” The shepherds spit out their rooster booster and are terrified. And this is different than being afraid to spend the holidays with your in-laws of the opposite political party. This is a startling event. The angel says, “Leave your fear behind. Christmas is good news… and not just for you… but for everyone – even the morning shift Shepherds.” They could have scoffed. They could have let it go and left Christmas behind. So many do. So many will. But not the shepherds. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got to find Christmas and receive it for ourselves.” And they do it! That’s amazing! We just accept this as part of the old story but it’s surely a miracle in and of itself. Just imagine – being in the new maternity wing over here at the hospital. You’re there with your new beautiful bundle and in marches the night shift Shepherd crew to see your baby and what the fuss is really all about. And. they. worship. that. baby. When’s the last time you’ve really worshipped. I don’t mean the last time you attended a worship service. Maybe silly seeing that here we all are this evening. But I mean your heart – when has your heart last leapt with joyful praise because the presence of the living God has made room for even you in the greatest miracle the universe has ever boasted? I asked you earlier what you needed to experience tonight to know that Christmas has come again because I want you to know it, feel it, embrace the grace of God come to even us to say, “I’m with you. I love you.” Meister Eckhardt said it this way: “What good is it if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of Grace if I am not also full of grace? Christ could be born a thousand times in Galilee – but all is in vain until he is born in me!” Christmas after Christmas, year after year… what does it mean if Christ is not born in you? In me?
Along with a number of you, I was at the Broken Arrow PAC last Monday night for special Christmas concert featuring our own Kelly Ford along with saxophonist Grady Nichols and Andy Chrisman of 4Him. The concert was titled Falling in Love with Christmas which happens to be the name of Grady’s new Christmas album. It was funny to listen to him talk about titling his songs. As a saxophone player, his music is instrumental – so what inspires you to give each song a name? He talked about one song called “Within the Blue” which sounds really deep but was simply something he came up with when he finished watching an old VHS tape when at the end, instead of getting up to stop and rewind the tape he just let it go to that default blue screen. “Within the Blue.” Anyway – it was a beautiful night. Proud of Kelly and just put my heart in a spirit of worship. The concert was a benefit for ALS Patient Services Outreach. A video interview was shown with a man named Dandy Oskey, a 56 year-old Tulsan who has suffered from the disease since 2011. He was a former collegiate soccer star, co-captain of his team; strong, healthy, father of five – working as a computer consultant in the health care industry and volunteering seventeen years in the Children’s ministry at his church. Dandy shared about the things ALS takes away from life. He said, “It’s easy to focus on the negative but I’ve chosen a different perspective. I’ve chosen to think of all the things ALS cannot take from me. It cannot take away the love I have for my family and friends. It cannot take away my decision to be selfless; my peace or my joy. And it cannot take my trust in Jesus. God is good and one day I will be healed. I will get up out of this chair on earth or I will stand face to face with Jesus completely made whole. And then through labored words he says with this incredible expression of joy on his face, “Either way, I win!” And by golly, I believed him. And he has won. He found his way to Jesus in May of this year. That is what I needed to hear for me to know that Christmas has come again this year. My heart swelled with the grace of God and my soul worshipped. What do you need? What can Christmas heal in your soul even still tonight?
I got to take in the concert that evening with my parents who made a quick trip into town from Kansas City to share in the joy of many of our kid’s recitals and programs over the weekend. It was a special time with them. Just the three of us went to the concert and I can’t tell you the last time I was alone with my parents without none of the other family around. I’m sure it’s happened but that last time I could think of in that moment was that time at seven years old when I climbed into their bed on Christmas Eve, protectors of my heart, my soul, my anxious and wide-eyed spirit straining with my everything to see Christmas come. My dad retired from ministry a couple of years ago now… preached hundreds and hundreds of sermons over four decades of ministry. With Christmas and worship and my time alone with them all swirling in the moment, I asked him, “Hey dad. If you could preach one more sermon, what would you preach?” His heart must have been swirling around similar things. After a moment of silence, he says, “If I had one sermon to preach? Maybe I’d preach that one simple verse from O Little Town of Bethlehem. How does it go?” and then he rattles it off: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the joys of highest heaven. No ear may hear Christ coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
Just a little pool of tears filled my eyes. I’m not too proud to admit that. Christmas. So simple. So humble. So beautiful. With all the trials and struggles and brokenness and fear that may have you wrapped tight right now, I just want you to know what Christmas left behind for you. It left hope. It left eternity. It left love. Christmas has always been about gifts – but not the ones left on my childhood piano bench. Christmas is about the gift of Christ – born in me. Born in you. Can you receive that tonight? Will you? You may feel Christmas is best left to the storage shed of our childhood crafts. You may feel like you’ve already received it, you know the story and are “good with Christmas.” Whatever the case, I just ask you to receive it again. Tonight. In your heart.
As we light candles in just a moment… may they be sign and symbol of what you’ll do with what Christmas left behind for you. We are to be light to the world. We are to be full of grace. We are to be alive in Christ so that whether we are healed of our brokenness in this life or the next, we win either way. Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
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