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Christmas Greetings

Children's sermon
In the lectionary gospel text for the fourth Sunday of Advent, the angel Gabriel brings dumbfounding news to an incredulous Mary -- telling her that she “will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” But before he gets to the meat of his message, the angel tries to calm her, saying: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” That emphasis on letting go of our fear is echoed in Luke’s nativity narrative, in which the angel announcing the Lord’s birth to a ragtag group of shepherds begins his message by telling them: “Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy.” In this installment of The Immediate Word, team member Chris Keating notes that the phrase “Do not be afraid” may be the most important holiday greeting we can share with one another -- especially since it’s such a timely message for a modern society that is often gripped with fear. Just when we seem to be overwhelmed by worries about threatening forces beyond our control that play havoc with our lives, we are presented with a reminder of the Almighty’s power to break into our gloom and offer hope that anything is possible. That, Chris points out, gives us the strength to set aside our fears and to act with confidence and optimism.

Team member Mary Austin shares some additional thoughts on the imagery of light and darkness touched on by the prophet Isaiah and in the prologue to John’s gospel. Mary reminds us that for people of color, such imagery can have mixed connotations -- so it’s vital to use the terms with care, emphasizing light as illumination and darkness as the lack of illumination instead of simplistically equating light with good and dark with evil.

Christmas Greetings
by Chris Keating
Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-14

It’s just about time to make Christmas great again, and the best way to get started is by bringing back the traditional holiday greetings. This contemporary nonsense has got to stop. That’s right -- no more “Season’s Greetings” or “Candy cane wishes and mistletoe kisses!” “Joyeux Noel” is too foreign. Forget about singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” too. In an age of changing family structures, “From our family to yours” might be a tad confusing. “Merry and bright” sounds elitist. Don’t even think about “Happy Holidays.”

And given the current cultural climate, references to someone getting kissed by a red-suited stranger in living rooms should be carefully monitored.

Facetiousness aside, the so-called “war on Christmas” and its presumed attempts to ban saying “Merry Christmas” may soon be viewed by most Americans as nothing more than political jabbering. Contrary to what might be heard at one of President Trump’s rallies, more than half of Americans indicate they don’t care what a business chooses to use as its holiday greetings.

The good news is that there is a better, more biblically-based alternative. In a world of worry, perhaps the most appropriate Christmas greeting is the phrase uttered by angels throughout Luke’s birth narrative: “Do not be afraid.”

It might just catch on.

Here’s a greeting whose time has come. It’s a timeless treasure that illumines the theological essence surrounding the incarnation. It’s the nearly ubiquitous angelic calling card, the classic opening line uttered by angels in their appearance before mortals. It accompanied the answer to Zechariah’s prayer and quelled Mary’s anxiety. Rowdy shepherds took off running for Bethlehem, but only after the heavenly host quelled their terror-filled souls. Of all the greetings used at Christmas, this one comes straight from the pages of scripture.

More importantly, it is a word grounded in the astonishing promise Gabriel delivers to Mary: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

In the News
Fear knocks us over like an icy-cold winter blast. December’s winds blow against the trees, stripping the remainder of fall’s glory into the street. Stark, barren limbs remain. Their silent testimony illustrates the struggle to remain resilient in the face of fear.

Nearly 77 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before Congress to declare his hope that, despite the serious threats posed by war, America would one day shape its life according to four essential human freedoms, including the freedom from fear. Americans, hardened by the Depression and seeing armed conflict envelop much of the world, seemed committed to making Roosevelt’s vision reality.

Last year, however, pollsters showed that Americans were more fearful of terrorism than at any point since September 11, 2001. Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, points out that fear levels have been rising steadily since the 1980s. Experts describe the climate of fear as being steadily high, “punctuated by jarring spikes.”  Fear, it seems, is fashionable.

Some historians note that in the wake of the Cold War, politicians learned how to manipulate fear in pursuit of an agenda. Elaine Tyler May, author of Fortress America, described the process in a recent interview with NPR. It started with the message “that the bomb could drop at any time. Each person was responsible for their own safety. There’s really nothing the government or the leaders of the country can do to protect you.” May explores the theory of whether or not the country has ever actually been faced with the level of danger leaders have suggested for 50 or more years.

Crime became overly associated with African-Americans, May says, with a particular focus on the danger posed by young black men. She also details how society pushed back against women entering the work force by warning women to stay home where they would be safe. In spite of these reactions, May says we know that statistically black men are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, and that white women are least likely to be victims of violent crime. “Yet the way that the media and a lot of political leaders framed it,” she told Ray Suarez, “It was just the opposite.”

Fear is much more real, and much more a part of our daily lives, than perhaps at any point in history. Last week’s headlines form a chain of fear. There are worries about the impact of the Republican-sponsored tax bill, worries about the impact of California’s catastrophic wildfires, ongoing fears about terrorism, and even fears about you-know-who.

No, not Voldemort, or even anyone named Trump. In the wake of the Federal Communications Commission decision to roll back regulations on internet neutrality, some have wondered if the nation needs to start worrying about none other than Mickey Mouse. With its pending purchase of Fox Communications, Disney now has considerable leverage over content unleashed on the internet. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be pushed toward favoring Disney content.

Meanwhile, media companies and ISPs are consolidating faster than the weird things that happen in Netflix’ fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, home to Stranger Things. As companies merge, the real fear is that consumers will find their internet content choices limited. “We can’t talk about net neutrality anymore without talking about Mickey Mouse,” wrote one reporter.

It could be the latest Disney Christmas classic: “Fear the Mouse.”

Whether or not you understand the potential consequences of losing net neutrality, many of us wrestle with a panoply of fear every day. There’s a superabundance of fear, as documented by a recent study by Chapman University. This year’s study revealed a pronounced shift in fears related to the environment, and for the first time in the study’s history environmental concerns were among the top ten fears. Researchers noted a connection between common fears and the year’s top media stories.

According to the report, the ten most common fears of Americans in 2017 include corrupt politicians, the loss of healthcare, and destruction of the environment. Other fears on the list include not having enough money for the future, restrictions on firearms, losing someone you love, economic downturns, identity theft, people you love becoming seriously ill, and Obamacare.

Also on the list, but mercifully not on the top ten, were zombies. Imagine that: fearing zombies, Obamacare, and Mickey Mouse all in the same year? Oy vay.

There is, of course, no end of things of which we can fear. Fear is itself a vacuum that sucks the joy out of life. And consider this: it’s just a few days before Christmas, and the malls are going to be a mess.

Merry Christmas? Perhaps, but listen carefully to the greetings of grace extended to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds, and begin to imagine what a truly Christ-filled greeting might sound like this Christmas. Struck by awe, perplexed and confused, the word that leads them to the miraculous birth of grace begins not with “Seasons Greetings” but “Do not be afraid.”
In the Scriptures
The annunciation in Luke 1:26-38 is framed by the parallel story of the birth of John the Baptist. The story carries echoes of Sarah and Abraham, and Hannah and Elkanah. Zechariah, faithful servant of the Lord, and Elizabeth are righteous. They have lived faithfully and blamelessly. Then Luke adds the familiar detail: “but they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” From the outset, it is clear that Luke’s story will be guided by the angelic proclamation: nothing will be impossible with the Lord.

In both stories, the messenger of the Lord is the angel Gabriel, dispatched with urgent news. It’s clear from the start that something is up. The tension increases, like a television anchor swallowing hard before delivering breaking news. Gabriel’s message, surprising and scary as it sounds, is nonetheless good news (1:19). Because fear and unbelief sweeps over Zechariah, his ability to speak is lost. It’s quite clear that when an angel appears in Luke, the first word out of his or her mouth is going to be “Don’t be afraid.”

Mary’s experience is similar. Before she responds with a resounding chorus of “Let it be,” Mary is first perplexed and confused. This time, however, Gabriel seems more reassuring. Perhaps he had a chance to review his lines after the encounter with Zechariah. For whatever reason, Mary’s fear is calmed by Gabriel’s reminder that she has found favor with God. 

Still, she counters: “How can this be?” It’s our question too. Esteemed Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer, anticipating our own perplexity, suggests that Mary’s questions can be a source of our own consolation. “What really happened? We shall never know,” says Fitzmeyer. Father James Martin agrees: “The story of the Annunciation, beloved as it is, can seem completely removed from our human experience.”

Except for fear. Shively Smith notes that Gabriel’s statement links more than just the stories of Zechariah and Mary. It is an offering of comfort, a reminder that nothing is impossible with God. Smith observes that all of this is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ provision of comfort and assurance throughout his ministry. Zechariah, a priest, and Mary, a young girl, are both confronted with the incredulous message: “Do not be afraid.”

The story introduces the tension of grace. As Karoline Lewis observes, the text moves deftly from the absence of God (“How can this be?”) to the fulfillment of all God promises. Lewis is correct in admonishing preachers to not reduce that tension too quickly. Instead, allow the fear which confronts Mary to penetrate the story to more fully illumine the promise God offers. Allow her response to this angelic greeting to form a place where we may also say: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

In the Sermon
My family shares a delightful story about a time, long before I was born, when my mother and father and brother and sister were returning home from Christmas Eve worship. As they sloshed through the snowy ruts of Chicago’s city streets, they spotted a man dressed as Santa Claus walking – barely -- down the sidewalk. It was immediately apparent to my parents that this guy had been indulging in too much Christmas cheer. This Santa was soused, a fact that completely escaped my brother and sister.

As far as they were concerned, their eyes had seen the unthinkable. They were wide awake, and Santa was just around the corner. They knew what would happen if Santa showed up and they were still awake. Fear set in quickly, and apparently there were no arguments about going to bed.

Fear can be a motivator. But just as likely, fear can paralyze us, and can reduce our ability to accept the gift of grace. Think of the ways fear, and its evil twin anxiety, cloud our lives with expectations. Fear of not having the “perfect” Christmas keeps us from experiencing the joy of simply being with family and friends. Fear of not having enough keeps us from sharing our heart.

Taken to extremes, when fear rules the world we remain enmeshed in anxiety. By way of contrast, fearless persons like Simeon (2:25) and Anna (2:36) live in constant expectation that nothing, indeed, is impossible with God. Likewise, the shepherds, confronted by the hosts of the heaven, don’t fall apart in fear, as if rattled by some sort of UFO-conspiracy theory. Instead they rise up, head to Bethlehem, and tell others what they have seen. The gospel sets aside fear.

As your congregation gathers this Sunday, they will bring their own portfolios of fear with them. Helping them identify fears, and perhaps even finding the courage to be vulnerable in naming your own fears, can bind the free-floating anxiety and quell fear. How can Gabriel’s greeting lead us to a new holiday tradition? What sort of greeting is this? Ponder that, and consider how the gospel moves us beyond fear.

Merry Christmas, and may the gift of faith call us all beyond fear -- so that we can say to each other: “Do not be afraid, for nothing is impossible with our God.”

by Mary Austin
Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:1-14

As I wage a familiar battle against winter depression every year, I feel a kinship with the powerful images of light in the scriptures. Isaiah’s word that a light shines for people in darkness feels like a personal word, and John’s proclamation that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it has a particular thrill in the long nights of winter. Speaking about the nation’s dark season of oppression, Isaiah says that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” God’s presence in their distress comes as light in the darkness. 

Our ideas of light and darkness have twisted away from Isaiah’s vision, and some of our fellow Christians hear these images with peculiar pain. In our culture, light and dark are inevitably linked to people and skin color. Earlier in Advent, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, a professor at Brite Divinity School, posed this question in an online discussion group: “It is Advent, the season when the church uses the language of darkness to signify all that is unredeemed in a binary that identifies light with all that is holy -- God and the Christ child. How will you navigate and negotiate this language and imagery while the blood of black folk is still crying out from the earth for justice?” 

The United Church of Canada notes that the Bible uses darkness to talk about the forces opposed to God, but that the use of darkness in the Bible is more varied than just that: “Darkness is also the place out of which God speaks, encompassing the very presence of God. As well, it is the envelope of God’s glory. Further, it is darkness in the sky that makes it possible for the stars to be visible -- including the Bethlehem star.” 

We have come far from the variety of images for darkness in the Bible. In our time, the guys in the white hats are always the good guys, and we talk about evil people having black hearts. Angel food cake is white, and devil’s food is dark. The villain always wears black, while the heroine in need of rescue wears white. The Dark Lord in the Harry Potter books is the embodiment of evil. Even Star Wars picks up the imagery, and we know that “the once virtuous Darth Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force, his destructive power fueled by rage and hate. The dark side is all the galaxy’s evils rolled together.” 

During the Enlightenment, the United Church of Canada article continues, “some of the leading European enlightenment philosophers, academics, and scientists arbitrarily assigned the positive and ‘pure’ characteristics of the term ‘light’ to white people (i.e., Europeans), and ascribed to non-Europeans, including the brown and black peoples of the world, the ‘negative’ characteristics of the term ‘dark.’... Before this time, the positive and negative aspects of light and dark were not systematically assigned to different peoples. Once this separation of peoples based on race became entrenched in education, science, economic, social, and political policies and activities of colonial conquest and enslavement, it was virtually impossible to use these terms in ways devoid of a racist agenda.” 

With that in mind, when we talk about human darkness in Advent, no wonder men and women of color hear it deeply differently. 

Any image for God, or for God’s presence, holds more than one layer. Advent calls us back to an understanding of darkness as a place of beginnings and birth, a place of waiting. The light is not goodness, but transformation and a path forward  Pastor and professor Ray A. Owens asks: “How can congregations and communities participate in the way-making work of Jesus the Christ?” Part of making the way is following the right guidance, and he says that the “significance of the North Star in African-American culture offers a useful image for thinking about the meaning of this liturgical moment for black people. For enslaved Africans in the antebellum south, the North Star served as a light illuminating the way out of the darkness of slavery and into the light of freedom.... The connection between the light of the North Star and the right way toward freedom opens up powerful theological possibilities for Advent. As the God of liberation, Jesus lights the way that leads to our freedom. Freedom, therefore, requires our participation.” The light can be movement out of oppression and toward freedom. 

The darkness is also a place of “not yet.” Professor Josef Sorett notes that the African-American community has a unique understanding of Advent, as a community that lives its daily life between the “already” and the “not yet.” He offers other possible images for Advent, saying, “The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church at which I served while in seminary and the historic Charles Street AME Church in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood made this Advent [candle-lighting] ritual especially significant in the life of its congregation. As is customary, a particular theme is assigned to each candle. The themes progress as follows: Promise, Preparation, Anticipation, and Proclamation.” 

Our longing for the fullness of God’s presence in our world calls us to look beyond simple ideas of light and dark as holiness vs. evil, or good replacing bad. Light and dark require each other, and light is dynamic in the same way that God is. Light can be soft or demanding, comforting or too bright, steady or hard to find. Darkness can be the shadows where we hide ourselves, separated from God by our own willfulness. The dark can be fearful, or a shelter, or a place of birth and rebirth. There are lots of ways to use these images that evoke God’s transforming gifts. We owe it to ourselves, and to our community of fellow believers, to use these words with care, mindful of their impact.   


From team member Dean Feldmeyer:

Not So Scary Scarecrows
The cartoon of two crows sitting on the shoulders of a scarecrow is almost a cliché, but it’s built on truth. Birds are smarter than we realize. Crows soon learn that the scarecrow is not going to move or hurt them, and they begin to look for scarecrows as signs of where they can find plenteous good food.

When a store near where I live had trouble with pigeons roosting in and on the big block letters of their sign, they tried using plastic owls to scare the pigeons away. It took the pigeons about a week to realize that the owls were not a threat. The store tried rubber snakes. Same outcome. They even tried a recording of a hawk’s screeching call. Two days later the pigeons were back. Not until physical barriers were placed in and on the sign did the pigeons stop roosting on the big letters. They roosted on the barriers instead.


Roots Tour Memory
When I was a child, my family would from time to time travel to rural southern Indiana on what my father called the “Roots Tour.” We would go to the cemetery to visit the graves of our ancestors, and then make our way through the county, visiting grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives in the area where my parents grew up.

Sometimes my parents would drop me off with my brother and sister at our great-grandmother’s farm so we could roam around and play while they visited other relatives. We liked the farm and the freedom it offered, but my grandmother had a rooster named Tom Jones that was mean and would attack small animals and children to drive them out of the backyard, which he considered his private domain. So fierce and angry did he seem that he struck fear into our hearts. Grandma also had an outhouse, and the only way to get to it was through Tom Jones’ territory.

One afternoon while my siblings napped in the summer heat I was taken with the need to get to that outhouse -- but so great was my fear that I could not bring myself to defy that rooster. I stood on the back porch, bouncing from one foot to the other, nearly doubled over in pain and frozen with fear.

Then I heard the voice of my little round great-grandmother: “Come on, Dean. I’ll go with you.” There she stood guard with her broom in hand as I made my way across that dangerous yard. “I’ll go with you.” They are, I believe, the four most beautiful words in the English language.


A Rash Fear
When I was a junior in college I was older than most of the other students, having spent three years working while my wife finished nursing school. During the first quarter of my return to higher education I struck up a friendship with several people in one of my classes who all shared the same major.

One day, one of the women in our group seemed rather listless and distracted in class. I asked her if she was okay, and she shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t really know. She twisted her scarf around her fingers as she talked. She had, she said, developed a mysterious rash on her neck and shoulder and she didn’t know what was causing it. She had gone to the clinic at the university and they had taken a sample for a biopsy. The clinic had called right before class to say that the results were back and asked if she could come over that afternoon and talk to the doctor. She was understandably nervous as skin cancer was not altogether foreign to her family.

Watching her twisting the scarf and seeing the look on her face, I asked her if she wanted me to go with her to the clinic. She burst into tears, and after a moment she put her hand on my arm and said thank you but her mother was coming to go with her; but she was very thankful for my offer and I was the only one of her friends who had done so.

Sometimes the key to conquering a fear is having someone who will go with you.

(The rash turned out to be serious and rare, but not cancer. It was treated with hydrocortisone and eventually cleared up. She and I remained friends through graduate school.)


The Absence of Light
As I plugged in the crockpot full of my special, world-famous chili, there was a small popping sound -- and about half the lights in the kitchen went out. 

I figured it couldn’t be the chili’s fault, so I went to the garage to see if I had inadvertently tripped a breaker. No, the breakers looked good. I went back into the kitchen, checked the wall socket, and discovered that it was one of those GFI things with a little breaker built into it. I unplugged the crockpot and pushed the little red button on the GFI.

Nothing. The GFI would not reset.

It must be worn out, I reasoned; I would have to replace it.

So I went to the hardware store, got a replacement GFI, came home, and started the process of replacing the old one. Only the lights were out and I couldn’t see what I was doing.

I was working in the dark -- that is, without illumination. I could not see.

I tried several solutions, none of which worked well enough so that I could see what I was doing. Eventually I realized that I was in over my head and called an electrician, who came the next afternoon to fix the problem.

Joe, the electrician, put a thing on his head with a little light on the front that illuminated the receptacle in question. He looked things over for about ten minutes and showed me that, even had the lights been shining, I still would have been working in the dark -- that is, without understanding. The problem, it turned out, was not the GFI but something else that he told me about but that I don’t remember because I didn’t understand it.

At any rate, he fixed it, I paid him, and now I had light again. I can see, even if I can’t understand what I’m looking at. So I guess you could say I have one kind of illumination but not the other.


Cared or Scared
Every once in a while, another list is made public about what people are afraid of -- and invariably public speaking falls at or near the top of the list.

I am a professional public speaker, and I have from time to time taught public speaking at the high school and college levels. In doing so I have seen students so scared of speaking before a room full of their peers, or a teacher, that they became physically sick. I’ve seen students so nervous that their hands trembled so badly they could not turn the page in their notes.

As a teacher I want to teach them not just how to speak well, but also how to get past their stage fright.

Most of the common advice on the subject (imagine the audience in their underwear, don’t make eye contact, just look above their heads, etc.), however, is nonsense.

The advice I have always given is the same advice that I was given as a student: CARE.

If you are just going through the motions -- to get a grade, to fill the silence with words, to make your mother happy, whatever -- you are doomed to failure. You will get stage fright and you will crash and burn.

No, the only way to beat stage fright is to care. Pick a subject that you care, care passionately about. And care that your audience “gets it” when you are done talking. That will motivate you to do the necessary work and practice to make you a public-speaking winner.

In other words, the only way to avoid stage fright is to care more about your audience and your subject than you care about yourself.


From team member Ron Love:

(These illustrations are based on major themes in this week’s lectionary readings.)

Karen Crouse recently wrote in the New York Times about Tiger Woods’ comeback to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. She noted that there was a new Tiger Woods. The old Woods was snobbish and aloof, proud and arrogant. The new Woods, after four back surgeries and a 301-day absence from golf, was friendly and approachable. Crouse wrote: “The old Woods never would have sounded giddy after a round with five bogeys on his scoreboard. But after that third round he spoke with relish about the struggle.” Tiger Woods, Regarding that round, Woods said: “It’s nice to be a part of the fight again. Get out there and fighting against the golf course; fighting against the guys. That’s fun.”

Application: As we can see from several of the biblical characters in today’s lectionary readings, when one encounters the presence of God through the Holy Spirit the old person becomes a new creation. Mary is the best example of this when God “lifted up the lowly.”


Karen Crouse recently wrote in the New York Times about Tiger Woods’ comeback at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. She noted that after four back surgeries and a 301-day absence from competitive golf, there was a new Tiger Woods on the links. Crouse wrote: “Woods no longer needs to finish first to carry the sport. He can experience joy playing for fun and for his fans.” After completing the tournament, Woods said: “When I was struggling with my back, the world seemed very small. Now I’m able to sit back and enjoy it a little bit, talk to more people, go out to more dinners, and it’s been really nice.”

Application: In our lectionary readings we have several passages describing individuals who are rejoicing because they discovered a new meaning to life. Mary and Elizbeth both rejoiced with the blessing and discovery of a new life. David rejoiced that he was both chosen and protected by God. The psalmist wrote that he “will sing of your steadfast love.”


In her recent New York Times article about Tiger Woods’ comeback, Karen Crouse noted that after four back surgeries and a 301-day absence from professional play there was a humble Tiger Woods on the links. Crouse wrote: “After briefly vaulting into the lead during his second-round 68, Woods said he was humbled by the support of fans, both in his gallery and on social media.” Speaking to his new sense of humility, Woods said: “It’s very flattering that so many people really enjoyed what I’ve been done throughout my 20 years on tour.”

Application: In our lectionary readings humility comes with an understanding of being blessed. Mary is probably our best example of this, but even David understood what it meant to have God watching over him.


New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote a piece titled “Donald Trump Could Really Use a Friend.” Bruni’s opening sentence reads: “Show me a person who has no true friendships and I’ll show you someone with little if any talent for generosity.” Bruni then dedicated his column to outlining why Trump has no friends and how that affects his decisions. Trump, according to Bruni, has no friends because he is “a full-blown narcissist” and a “full-throttle paranoiac.” For these reasons Trump is not concerned how his decisions “impact others. For him they don’t fully exist.” Trump’s “friendlessness’” prevents him from “compromising” and showing “compassion.” Bruni offered many examples of how Trump relates to others and treats them in a self-serving manner. Then Bruni wrote this powerful paragraph: “For Trump, ‘friendship’ isn’t a two-way street. It’s a cul-de-sac. You can spin round and round there, in the shadow of his castle, or you can take your vehicle somewhere else.”

Application: You may agree or disagree with Bruni’s evaluation of Trump’s “friendlessness,” but Bruni’s evaluation of what it means to have a friend should be taken seriously. We need to ask ourselves if a friend for us spins around on our cul-de-sac, or if our friendship lives on a two-way street. We can see from our lectionary readings that Mary needed a friend in Elizabeth.


God’s Protection
The New York Times recently published an extensive article on the imprisonment of women with children in Afghanistan. The article followed the life of 11-year-old Meena, whose mother, Shirin Gul, is a convicted serial killer serving a life sentence. Gul had been sentenced to be executed, but she became pregnant in prison by a guard. Her sentence was then commuted to life in prison. It is believed she became pregnant on purpose to avoid the gallows. In Afghanistan, when a mother goes to prison or gives birth in prison, the children accompany her until they turn 18. This means that Meena has never known life beyond the prison walls. Meena has never been out of prison once, not even for a brief visit. The reporting journalist, Rod Nordland, wrote that Meena “has no idea what the world outside the walls look like.”

Application: In our lectionary readings we know how God protected David and Mary. The psalmist speaks of God’s protection. As Christians we are called to see that the Meenas of the world receive the protection of God.


The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton recently opened at the Victoria Palace in London. But there was a question about whether British audiences would be able to understand and relate to the story of Alexander Hamilton. A random sampling of ticket holders for the sold-out first performance, revealed that some were clueless as to who Hamilton was and only wanted to see the latest musical. Others did some research before the performance. Perhaps the best answer came from Ramin Sabi, 25, a theater producer. Sabi said: “I think it’s a relatively universal story.”

Application: As we proclaim the biblical message, we must be able to show others the universal truths of the scriptures. We need to show how all of us could be a David or a Mary.


The new movie I, Tonya is about a very violent act in sports, when figure skater Tonya Harding arranged for a man to hit her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, in the leg with a police baton during a national competition. In the actual event, a camera captured Kerrigan on the ground as she repeatedly wailed “Why?” Though the movie I, Tonya presents itself as a comedy, it has numerous scenes of bloody brutality, especially in depicting Harding’s relationship with boyfriends. A New York Times reviewer wrote that “it becomes increasingly baffling why the filmmakers decided to put a comic spin on this pathetic, dispiriting story.”

Application: The stories of David and Mary are told straightforward, absent of embellishment. The authors did not put any comic spin on these two stories, but gave a very forthright account. When we share biblical stories, we must tell them as they are recorded, absent of any twist we may wish to give them.


The new movie I, Tonya is about a very violent act in sports, when figure skater Tonya Harding arranged for a man to hit her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, in the leg with a police baton during a national competition. Presenting itself as a comedy, the movie weaves a complex story that keeps audiences from clearly knowing the truth. The actors portraying Harding and her boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, tell their own side of the story through narrations that frequently contradict each other. At one point in the movie Tonya says, “There is no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.” In order to persuade the audience, the two characters often break the fourth wall and speak directly to the viewer. (A theater has three sides -- the left one, the right one, and the back one. The “fourth wall” refers to the invisible front wall that stands between the actors and the audience. When an actor breaks the fourth wall, they are no longer focusing their conversation to the characters on the stage, but are now speaking to and engaging the audience directly.) In the movie Tonya and Jeff often break the fourth wall in order to gain the affirmation of the audience. A New York Times reviewer wrote that “Characters periodically break the fourth wall by looking into the camera and directly addressing the viewer, as if to assert ownership of the unwinding story. Listen to me, each seems to say in these moments.”

Application: The Christmas story breaks the fourth wall, as the story is directed straight at the reader.


God’s Protection
In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote: “At 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, Al Franken, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, stood on the Senate floor and announced his intention to resign.” Franken did this because of the number of sexual harassment allegations that have been made against him. Goldberg noted that since October, when movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was fired for being a serial sexual predator, a number of very powerful and famous men have been fired or disgraced. But, Goldberg noted, it is only the famous who are falling. Goldberg wrote: “In truth, however, this new door is open for only some people -- those whose harassers are either personally or professionally susceptible to shame.” Goldberg concluded, “It sometimes feels as if we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution where the toll of sexual harassment on women’s lives and ambitions will finally be reckoned with. But the revolution is smaller than it first appears.” And the reason it is smaller than we think is because women who have not been molested by the rich and famous are still absent of a voice.

Application: As God was able to protect David, saying “I have been with you wherever you went,” and as the psalmist can confess the same, we must be able to extend God’s protection to all individuals. We need to extend God’s protection to those whose names will not be headline news, but who are suffering as much as those who have been tormented by Franken and Weinstein.


Milano is a strange-looking taxi on the streets of Florence, Italy. The taxi is white, and is decorated with vibrant colors of animals and flowers. The seats are yellow, purple, and orange. It has a back-and-white checked floor. Inside, the taxi is cultured with toys. And for 16 years the Florentine taxi has offered free rides for children with cancer from their homes to the hospital. The operator of the cab is Caterina Bellahdi, 52, who is better known as Zia Caterina (Auntie Caterina). Zia Caterina drives her Chrysler taxi wearing a flashy green-and-white cloak topped by a straw hat that is decorated with pompoms and roses. Little bells sound the movement of her wrists. But perhaps what should be most noticeable is her necklace, which is a polka-dot rosary of yellow, orange, and red beads. Zia Caterina explains, “I am not a clown. I am a taxi driver. So I do taxi-therapy.”

Application: Is it possible to see the angel Gabriel in Zia Caterina? Is it possible to see the angel Gabriel in each of us?


After 22 unsuccessful attempts, Australia has just approved same-sex marriages. The law has been changed from “the union of a man and a woman” to “the union of two people.” The law was passed after 61 percent of the voters affirmed homosexual marriage in a non-binding national referendum. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, recognized that the legislature adopted the will of the people. Abbott said: “When it comes to same-sex marriage, some countries have introduced it via the courts, some via parliament, and others -- Ireland and now Australia -- by the vote of the people. And that’s the best way, because it resolves this matter beyond doubt or quibble.”

Application: You may or may not be a supporter of gay marriage, but Abbott makes an important point for the church to ponder. Is a new revelation that is supported by a majority vote a good revelation just because it is popular? Often the church must take a stand that is unpopular if it is in keeping with the scriptures. Paul informs us that the revelation that comes through Jesus Christ will strengthen us.


God’s Protection
In Nigeria, the radical paramilitary group known as the Boko Haram has controlled the northeastern region of the country for eight years. During those years the Boko Haram have engaged in a reign of terror and brutality. Rape has been the defining horror of the Boko Haram. The militants kidnap and rape young girls, teenagers, and women, handing them out as so-called brides who are sometimes passed from fighter to fighter. Thousands of women have sought the security and protection of camps protected by the Nigerian military. During the day the camps have many humanitarian workers who for security reasons must leave before it gets dark. At night the camps are poorly lit, and the Nigerian military guards and camp officials become the new rapists. Some women are repeatedly raped several times in the night. The women must pay bribes to put up their tents and to get food. Once they no longer have funds, they must pay with sexual favors.

Application: As God was able to protect David, saying “I have been with you wherever you went,” and as the psalmist can confess the same, we must be able to extend God’s protection to all individuals. We need to extend God’s protection to those who are unable to defend themselves. And as Christians we need to be aware of atrocities both at home and across the globe.


President Donald Trump has brought the phrase “fake news” to the forefront of American politics. Whenever the president hears or reads an article critical of his presidency, he labels it as fake news. This has made many people skeptical of the media. Recently CNN reported that Donald Trump Jr. had received advance notice from WikiLeaks about a trove of hacked documents that it planned to release during last year’s presidential campaign. Critics of President Trump seized upon this as evidence of coordination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. CNN reported that on September 4, Donald Trump Jr. had access to the documents. An investigation by the Washington Post found the actual date to be September 14, which indicates that access to the documents is less important than CNN originally reported. James Surowiecki, a former columnist for the New Yorker, wrote that errors like this bolster President Trump’s claims about fake news. Surowiecki went on to write: “It’s the most obvious thing to say, but reporters need to SLOW DOWN. Being right is more important than being first.”

Application: You may agree or disagree with President Trump’s constant referral to fake news. But we can take a lesson from James Surowiecki about the importance of being right and accurate in our reporting. The stories of David and Mary are accurately presented in a straightforward manner. Paul is firm in his advice on proclaiming Jesus Christ. When we share the gospel message, it is imperative that we are accurate so that we do not have to defend ourselves from the accusation that we are sharing fake news.


God’s Protection; Rejoicing
During summer break from her graduate studies in Canada, Rumana Monzur returned home to the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh. She made the journey to tell her husband that she wanted a divorce. In that Muslim country, women are chattel who have no autonomy or authority -- the husband controls the relationship and is a dictator to his wife. Upon learning that Rumana wanted a divorce, her husband, Hasan, jumped on her and pinned her to the bed. He then gouged out her eyes with his fingers and bit off her nose. Hasan said, “I won’t let you be someone else’s and I won’t let you study.” The Muslim community in Dhaka rallied around the husband. The people in Canada rallied around Rumana. The story became international news. And because of this international attention, Rumana was able to return to Canada and permanently reside there. Rumana went on to get her law degree. Rumana, instead of grieving, focused on living. Rumana said: “I want people to see the real me, with a smiling face, not someone who lost her sight and completely lost herself. Everyone has challenges. This is mine. Life is a great celebration. I still believe that. You just have to make the best use of it.”

Application: There are many Rumana Monzurs in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our country, and across the globe. As God said to David “I have been with you wherever you went,” the Rumana Monzurs of the world need to know that God is with them. As Mary was able to deal with the struggles and death of Jesus and was still able to rejoice, we hope all people like Rumana Monzur can still celebrate life.


William Gass recently died at the age of 93. Gass lived in St. Louis, where he taught for 30 years at Washington University. One of America’s most respected authors, Gass was noted for his literary style, in which form and language were more important than plot and character. Sometimes his sentences contained more than 300 words, stringing together clauses with semicolons. Though he never wrote a best-seller, Gass is best known for his 652-page novel The Tunnel. Gass is credited with coining the word “metafiction” to describe writing in which the author is a part of the story.

Application: When we share the stories in our lectionary readings, we must do so with such passion that we are a part of the story.


Les Whitten recently died at the age of 89. An investigative reporter best known for exposing Washington’s frauds, he was Jack Anderson’s chief assistant for the newspaper column “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” In an interview for Life magazine in 1972, Whitten said: “This job gives me a chance to do what I wanted to do all my newspaper life -- knock the bleeding crap out of the people who are corrupting our country, and there are plenty of them.” Whitten went on to say, “We can only catch chips of the truth. But I don’t think that’s frustrating: To get the whole truth, you’ve got to be God.”

Application: In our lectionary readings, we read how David and Mary were called into God’s service. David certainly was not a perfect person, but he still accomplished great deeds. Both David and Mary did not fully understand God, but they both continued in faithful and obedient service. In fact, we read how Mary was “perplexed” and “pondered.” Like those who have gone before us, we will never perfectly understand all the truth because we are not God -- but we do know enough to be faithful servants.


Bill Steinkraus recently died at the age of 92. Steinkraus made Olympic history as the first American to win an individual gold medal in any equestrian discipline. Widely considered to be one of the greatest riders in the history of equestrian sports, Steinkraus was on all six Olympic teams from 1952 through 1972, missing only the 1964 Games in Tokyo when his horse pulled up lame at the last moment. He won his first Olympic individual gold medal, in show jumping, in Mexico City in 1968. Steinkraus insisted that success in competition depended upon the relationship between the rider and the mount. Steinkraus said: “A good horseman must be
a good psychologist. Horses are young, childish individuals. When you train them, they respond to the environment that you create. You are the parent, manager, and educator. You can be tender or brutal. But the goal is to develop the horse’s confidence in you to the point he’d think he could clear a building if you headed him for it.”

Application: All of us are called to serve the Lord in our different capacities in life. Our goal is to win an individual goal medal on God’s Olympic team. To do so, like Steinkraus, we must be a parent, manager, and educator.


Perry Noble, the worship leader of 32,000-member NewSpring Church, the largest church in South Carolina with multiple campuses, caused a theological stir with his Christmas Eve sermon in 2014. He proclaimed that the Ten Commandments were not commandments but only “promises,” since the word for “commandments” is not in the Hebrew lexicon. Having this epiphany, he wrote a revolutionary new sermon in ten minutes before stepping onto stage, transforming “you shalt not” to “you are free...” Reputable theologians challenged the irrefutable pastor regarding his exegesis. Though the Hebrew word used in the Torah can mean promises, it can also be interpreted as “declarations.” It would seem “Thou shall not...” is hardly a promise but most certainly a declaration, which is a commandment. Noble later confessed that there was a Hebrew word for “commandment,” but stood by his sermon that Moses on Mt. Sinai was given ten promises. A year later Noble was forced to resign due to alcoholism and mistreatment of employees.

Application: Since its conception the church has been plagued by heretical teachings, which in the first five centuries required numerous ecumenical councils to establish orthodoxy. The heretical disease has persisted with each generation of pulpiteers who misrepresent the gospel message to promote a singular credence unauthenticated by the established church. This Christmas let us be sure that we share the Christmas story with passion and truthfulness.


Liberated from Ravenbruck concentration camp on Christmas Day 1944, Miss Corrie ten Boom went forth on her mission. It was her calling to preach the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, knowing that only the Son of God could reconcile the estranged citizens of Europe. After several years of itineration, the proclaimer of forgiveness learned that she still harbored hate within her soul. Returning to Germany for the first time since her incarceration, the native of Holland spoke at a church service in Munich. There she encountered one of her captors, a jailer from Ravensbruck. Ten Boom once again found herself in the same room with the SS soldier who guarded the shower room door at the processing center, the man who ordered the lady to disrobe and then stood sneering at her nakedness. After the benediction the man came up to ten Boom, beaming and bowing, thrusting forth his hand in welcome, acknowledging how grateful he was for the message of forgiveness. The one who lectured on forgiveness kept her hand to her side. Angry, vengeful thoughts boiled within her; before her stood a person she could not forgive. Ten Boom prayed, but even in prayer she could not raise her hand in response. She felt neither warmth nor charity toward this criminal. She prayed a second time, “Jesus I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” This time she was able to touch the extended hand, and an incredible thing happened; ten Boom described a current of overwhelming love for this man passed from her heart, through her fingers, to his soul. Corrie ten Boom reflected: “And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Application: There are individuals you despise for their participation in an injustice. Incensed, dwelling within your countenance are feelings of rage and hostility. An attitude of resentment bars you from meaningful relationships, focusing all your creative energy on jealous revenge. Governed by hate, you become a bitter individual. Only by allowing Christ to stand at the center of the shattered relationship will the animosity be disposed. Incapable of forgiving, you must call upon Jesus, for only “the Son of man has full authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). His spirit joining with your spirit will empower you to pardon another individual. Certainly David was an individual who experienced God’s forgiveness.


In a Peanuts comic strip, Peppermint Patty is home, sitting at her desk, intent upon completing her homework assignment. Placing pencil to paper, she scrawls: “What I did on my Christmas vacation. I went outside and looked at the clouds. They formed beautiful patterns with beautiful colors. I looked at the clouds every morning and every evening. Which is all I did on my Christmas vacation.” Finished, she picks up the manuscript to study her composition. Suddenly suspicious that the class will question her ambition, Peppermint Patty places the report upon the desk and defensively concludes, “And what’s wrong with that?”

Application: Free yourself to enjoy such innocence, for there is nothing wrong with tranquility.

by George Reed

Call to Worship
Leader: We will sing of your steadfast love, O God, forever.
People: We will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
Leader: We declare that your steadfast love is established forever.
People: We proclaim that your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
Leader: God said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one.”
People: God is our Father, our God, and the Rock of our salvation!


Leader: The message of God comes to us and says, “Do not be afraid.”
People: We hear God’s voice, and we will not let fear hold us.  
Leader: There are scary things we may need to face in life.
People: We will face them with the courage of God’s presence.
Leader: In the midst of all our lives, God is with us, Emmanuel.
People: Thanks be to our ever-present God, our Emmanuel.

Hymns and Sacred Songs
“Blessed Be the God of Israel”
found in:
UMH: 209
H82: 444
CH: 135
LBW: 552, 250
ELA: 158
Renew: 128

“Toda la Tierra” (“All Earth Is Waiting”)
found in:
UMH: 210
NCH: 121
ELA: 266
W&P: 163

“Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates”
found in:
UMH: 213
H82: 436
PH: 8
NCH: 117
CH: 129
LBW: 32
W&P: 176
AMEC: 94
Renew: 59

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
found in:
UMH: 211
H82: 56
PH: 9
AAHH: 188
NNBH: 82
NCH: 116
CH: 119
LBW: 34
ELA: 257
W&P: 154
AMEC: 102
STLT: 225

“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”
found in:
UMH: 236
H82: 94, 95
PH: 58, 59
NNBH: 92
CH: 154
W&P: 228
AMEC: 110

“Angels We Have Heard on High”
found in:
UMH: 238
H82: 96
PH: 23
AAHH: 206
NNBH: 89
NCH: 125
CH: 155
LBW: 71
ELA: 289
W&P: 188
AMEC: 118
STLT: 231

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
found in:
UMH: 240
H82: 87
PH: 31, 32
AAHH: 217
NNBH: 81
NCH: 144
CH: 150
LBW: 60
ELA: 270
W&P: 185
AMEC: 115

“Once in Royal David’s City”
found in:
UMH: 250
H82: 102
PH: 49
NCH: 145
CH: 165
ELA: 269
W&P: 183
STLT: 228

“All Hail King Jesus”
found in:
CCB: 29
Renew: 35

“Our God Reigns”
found in:
CCB: 33

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982 (The Episcopal Church)
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African-American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day / Collect
O God who knows no impossibility: Grant us the grace to hear you say “Do not be afraid” so that we may face the world with hope and joy; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


We praise you, O God, for nothing is impossible with you. Help us to hear you speak once more those wonderful words: “Do not be afraid.” Strengthen us so that we may face the world with hope and joy as we share these with others. Amen. 

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins, and especially our failure to act because of our fears.

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We have allowed our fears to stop us from acting boldly. We have seen the difficulties before us and before our world, and we have let them overwhelm us. We forget that you are with us. We forget that you are Emmanuel. Empower us with your Spirit, and send us forth to share your good news with all the world. Amen.

Leader: God is the source of our courage and hope. Receive God’s grace and Spirit so that you may cast off the fear that cripples.

Prayers of the People (and the Lord’s Prayer)
All praise and glory are yours, O God, for you are the great sovereign of all creation. We are all in your mighty and kind hands. 

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We have allowed our fears to stop us from acting boldly. We have seen the difficulties before us and before our world, and we have let them overwhelm us. We forget that you are with us. We forget that you are Emmanuel. Empower us with your Spirit, and send us forth to share your good news with all the world.

We give you thanks for all the goodness with which you have filled our earth. You have given us an abundance of natural resources as well as your very self. You have come to live in, among, and through us all.

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for one another and for the needs of the entire creation. We remember those who find it difficult to believe that you are here among us as they face many evils, troubles, and problems. We pray that you will strengthen us so that we may share your work of bringing healing to your creation. 

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray together, saying:
Our Father . . . Amen.

(or if the Lord’s Prayer is not used at this point in the service)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Talk to the children about being afraid. There are some things we should be afraid of. We should be afraid to step in front of a speeding car or to put our hand on a hot burner in the kitchen. But that fear should not make us stay away from streets forever, nor should it keep us out of the kitchen for the rest of our lives. We should learn to look both ways before crossing the street and we should learn to not put our hands on the burners of a stove. God is with us, and we do not need to always be afraid. We need to know what is dangerous and then act wisely. 

We might be afraid to speak to a new boy or girl at school. But after we make sure it is safe, we can move beyond our fear and speak to them. (We are in school and teachers are watching over us.) On the street if we see a stranger, we probably decide it is safest not to talk to them. We don’t keep being afraid, we just act to keep ourselves safe. 

The Absence of Light
by Dean Feldmeyer
Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:1-14

You will need:
* a Star Wars action figure (or some pictures of the latest movie gleaned from the internet)
* a picture of Martin Luther King Jr.
* a flashlight or lantern
* a grocery-store size brown paper bag

You know, last week the latest version of Star Wars premiered at the movies. I think this is, what, the thousandth Star Wars movie isn’t it? It’s called Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and two of the characters (and the wookie Chewbacca) have been in every Star Wars movie.

One thing I’ve noticed about this movie is that they talk a lot about “the Force.” Does anyone know exactly what the Force is? It’s some kind of power, because people who have it have special abilities to do things most people can’t. Apparently people who have it can use it for good or for bad. The bad side is called the “Dark Side,” and the good side, well, it’s just called the Force.

The bad side is the Dark Side (hold up picture or action figure of Darth Vader). So the good side must be the light side (hold up picture or action figure of Luke or Princess Leah). So according to Star Wars, light is good (Luke/Princess Leah) and dark is bad (hold up picture of Martin Luther King).

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Just because this man has dark-colored skin, does that mean he’s bad? No, of course not. That’s Martin Luther King Jr. He was a good man -- a very, very good man.

Let’s try something. Look. Inside this bag it is dark, isn’t it? Does that mean that it’s evil or bad? No, of course not. It just means that no light can get inside there. But if I shine this flashlight in there, it becomes immediately bright and we can see, right? So, is the bag evil and the light we shine into the bag good? No, the inside of the bag is not evil. It’s just dark because there’s no light in there. If I shine the light it isn’t dark any more, is it? But that doesn’t mean that it is good, does it? 

See, the point here is that there are lots of ways to use the word “dark.” One way, when we mean it as evil, can hurt people who are dark, that is, people who have dark-colored skin. Another way to use “dark," like “in the dark,” has nothing to do with good and evil. It just means without illumination or light.

Do you see the difference? Good. It’s an important difference, isn’t it?

(End with a prayer asking God to bless all people of all colors, light or dark, so that we might all walk in his light.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, December 24, 2017, issue.

Copyright 2017 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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