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"The Conversation" by Keith Hewitt
"New Christmas" by David O. Bales
"The Best News" by David O. Bales


The Conversation
by Keith Hewitt
John 1:1-14

The conversation took place on an unnamed world, circling an unnamed star.

Well, sort of...

Ascribing a particular location to the event is difficult, because the beings conducting it were not physically confined to conventional notions of space and time, so it would be more precise to say that at that particular moment they were focused on that unnamed star and its lonely world. 

And to say they is not precisely correct, because the being that participated in the conversation was singular -- but also, in some sense, plural.  Consider:  an unbiased view of the world known as Earth clearly shows that it consists of land masses dropped into a single worldwide ocean, and yet the inhabitants persist in talking about the great ocean as though it were several different oceans -- and they are not wrong, because you can clearly see that each ocean has its boundaries and characteristics.  So, because this was a conversation and not an interior monologue, we can say that it happened between beings.

And, since we’re being precise, the term conversation isn’t entirely accurate, as it implies words, spoken in sentences, neither of which were used.  Instead, the exchange happened in a way that we can’t comprehend -- but we represent it with language, because if space is what keeps everything from being in one place, then language is what keeps ideas separate and makes processing and discussing those ideas possible.

So the conversation took place on an unnamed world, circling an unnamed star...

As the star dropped close to the horizon, and the first of two crescent moons rose above an ocean that was just the right shade of rust for this world, one being said, “You understand what’s at stake, then -- what I am asking you to do?”

“Of course,” the other being -- call it Logos -- answered. 

“It’s a lot -- I’m asking you to do more than anyone should be asked to do.  To surrender your existence, as it is, so you can be something less...to spend a lifetime as one of them, to die as one of them.  You understand that I will not help you when that time comes.” 

It was not a question, but Logos answered.  “I do.  For this all to mean anything, I must be as vulnerable and weak as they are -- so I can reach them, show them the ultimate strength and power of love and sacrifice.”

If it had had a head -- much less a body -- the first being would have nodded.  “Exactly.  You created order out of chaos, and brought light to the darkness of the universe, ages ago.  That’s why you must be the one to go and do the same for my people.  It’s a moment re-creation, you are bringing light to the darkness, creating a new order from the chaos of sin, a new chance for them to live in my kingdom again, if they choose.”

There was the briefest of pauses, and then Logos said, “You must love them so, to try so hard to redeem them.”

“They have a special place in my heart,” the first being admitted.  “They are capable of so much, but they struggle so against the darkness that it breaks my heart to see them fail.  I sometimes wonder,” it mused, “if I equipped them enough, to bear the gift of free will.”

“You once told me that without the ability to fail, achievement means almost nothing.  If you want them to soar, they must risk falling.”

“All true...but when they turn their backs on me, it still hurts -- and without you, they will never be able to find their way back.  I love you for what you are doing.”

“How could I do any less?  It hurts me to see you grieve.”

Another brief pause, and then the first being was very businesslike.  “So, I will send a messenger ahead of you -- a herald, to set the stage.  When the time is right, he will fade from the picture and you will build on the message that he had begun.”

“I understand.”

“And then, of course, you know how this ends.”

“I do.”

“And you won’t know any of this -- not the way you do now.  The knowledge and understanding you hold, now, can’t be contained in a human being’s mind -- not in the same way.  I can’t exactly predict what it will be like, but I would say -- for starters -- that the certainty we enjoy will not be present; I’m sure of that.  You will be relying on faith, just as they do.”

“I understand.”

“I will guide you.  There will be messengers to guide you, to help you at some points -- but the end...”

“I understand.”

“And you are sure you want to do this?”

“I’m sure that we must show that light and love will triumph over darkness and sin, yes.  But if you keep asking me, I’m going to start questioning my choice,” Logos answered.

“Well -- we don’t want that, do we?” the first being asked, and they shared something like a laugh between them.  After a moment, it said, “You see the star, there on the horizon?”

“I do.  I remember it well.”

“It is going to be the timekeeper.  It is going to be the sign.  When the light from this star appears in the sky it will tell those who know, that you are about to enter the world.  Once I start the clock, it will take about three thousand years for the light to reach them.  Three thousand years while I prepare them for your coming, set the stage to make it ready.”  Pause.  “Once I start the clock, there is no turning back.  Are you ready?”

If Logos had had lungs, there would have been a deep breath.  “I am.”

“Then let there be light,” the first being said.

Deep in the heart of the star, changes happened...space folded in on itself, matter began to collapse, and the changes rippled out to the outer atmosphere of the star, greedily grabbing the gases that made it what it was and pulling them down, down toward the core.  It grew denser and denser, as the star fell in on itself.  There was an explosion at the core that burned thousands -- millions -- of years of fuel in a cosmic instant, vaporizing the near planets and burning the far as the outer atmosphere was now blown out to the limits of the stellar system.

The light grew in intensity, until it was shining brighter than any of its neighbors, squandering billions of years of fuel recklessly over a matter of weeks or months in the phenomenon known as a nova.  It would not shine thus for long...but it would be long enough.

For in three thousand years the light would reach Earth, creating the illusion of a star where there had been none before...and those who understood, would know.

* * *

New Christmas
by David O. Bales
Psalm 98

It would benefit no one living or dead at Christmas to relate the name of the congregation or the people involved. The situation, although not exactly typical, occurs often enough to be recognized in some form in many congregations. 

The task of Pastor and Music Director was to choose music for Christmas Day worship. They had been through this drill three years already and did not share the same perspective. This year Music Director made a pre-emptive strike. He arrived in Pastor’s study three weeks before Christmas and announced, “At choir practice last night we discussed music for Christmas Day.” Pastor, blind-sided, was not able to respond quickly with his usual glibness. “We agreed we like the old carols and do not want any newish songs at Christmas,” Music Director said as he nodded his head devoutly.

“I guess that pretty well settles it?” Pastor said.

“Yes it does,” spoke Music Director in a reverent tone.

Pastor’s sermon planning for Christmas Day was not motivated by sincere dedication to his Lord, as he suspected that Music Director’s behavior was also not inspired by pure religious devotion. This unholy mixture of human nature led to Pastor’s Christmas Day sermon:

“Our text this morning is Psalm 98, that rousing piece of Israel’s liturgy that begins with the command, ‘Sing.’” He turned his eyes and voice to the right to address Music Director and choir with a smile. “We have this command not because our high school’s football team won the state championship, not because our troops successfully invaded an enemy country, not because the stock market hit a new high, not because a revolutionary medical treatment wipes out cancer. The command is laid upon us to sing because of God, Yahweh, the Lord Israel, the supreme being, creator of all and whom we know finally through our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

“When we hear this psalm we don’t respond as did the ancient Hebrews. We don’t merely sing about God the creator, the personal God of Israel. We sing about more. Something new happened after this Psalm was written. Our Lord Jesus Christ was born. So the hymn we sang this morning expresses God’s extension into our world in our Lord Jesus: “Joy To The World.” When Isaac Watts wrote the hymn in 1719 he was rewriting our text: Psalm 98. He turned it into a Christian, even a Christmas hymn. The tune seems to be borrowed from George Frederick Handel. Together they put something marvelously new into our worship. How impoverished our Christian church would be if Watts had not written that hymn. Can you imagine Christmas worship before people could sing ‘Joy To The World?’

“Or we can ask that same question of the impoverished church before 1738 that would have been robbed of being able to sing ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Or the church before 1816 that could not sing ‘Angels, From The Realms Of Glory.’ Or the church before 1849 that could not sing ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.’ Think of the children before 1887 who were not able to sing ‘Away In A Manger.’ Or the church before 1818 that could not end its Christmas Eve worship singing ‘Silent Night.’ And can you imagine one of those old churches that would not allow to be sung one of those new songs we call classics?

“Psalm 98, our text, begins with the command to sing to the Lord a new song because God does new things, the newest is the best revealed in Jesus the Christ, born in Bethlehem to the roaring of angels’ singing. We are commanded to sing a new song, not just our favorites. It is because of God’s mercy to us that needs to be told and retold in new ways to new people in new situations -- new songs just like new books, new prayers, and new liturgies.

“This is not because we are iconoclasts or dilettantes. It is because of God’s goodness. The center of the Christmas event is the always new event of God’s giving God’s very self for the sake of others, so new that we are commanded to sing new songs.”

Pastor turned his to his right to direct his eyes and voice to the choir. He saw Music Director bent with his head in his hands. Pastor became silent, aware instantly at how his short message had mercilessly bludgeoned the man. He stood opened mouthed for an embarrassing time, overcome with shame at what he had done on Christmas Day.

No more enjoying his theological quick-step, he turned to the congregation and spoke slowly and much more believably. “Christmas is about Jesus coming to us, us real people, we who are ornery and self-seeking, we who like our own opinions and like those who agree with us. Jesus came in real human life, this daily life we endure, that will not look so good tomorrow when the Christmas tinsel starts coming down. Our only hope is the new life that Jesus offers each of us not just once, but for our every day, and for our every decision. God’s new life through Jesus helps us confess our sins and rejoice in God’s goodness, even when we are so obviously lacking in our own. Let us sing again this morning the good news of God’s goodness that is described in Psalm 98 and that is always new and coming to us in Jesus. Let us sing ‘Joy To The World.’”

Preaching Point: God multiplies the good news of Jesus’ birth in new human dimensions.

* * *

The Best News
by David O. Bales
Isaiah 52:7-10

“I promise you I’ll try,” Susan said and whispered to herself, “I promise God too.” She leaned against the kitchen counter and pushed hair from her eyes with the back of her wrist, “But your dad is very trying.”  

Mike was going to say something, but Susan continued as she reached into the refrigerator for the pickles, “Negative. Just pick, pick, pick. Nothing positive in the world.”

“He doesn’t mean it personally,” Mike said. “He’s just lonely, sad with life.”

“I know,” Susan turned back and came to Mike to lay her hand on his chest, “I’m really going to try. Things got out of hand last year.”

“We’ll be ready, for our sake and for Dad’s sake,” Mike said. He leaned over and snatched a piece of turkey from the platter, “and planning ahead should help. It goes along with what my old pastor called being ‘prayed up.’”

“As long as I can hold to it,” Susan said. “I got pretty worn hearing his negative comments, ‘Seems like’... then mentioning things getting worse. We could make a game and count how many times he says it.” They laughed. She breathed in and out hard, “We’ll do our best.” She looked around at the bowls and platters on the counter. “Call Morgan to help me, and keep your hands out of Christmas dinner.”

“You’ll have to settle for my help. She’s still in the bathroom primping. Her big day.”

“My mom would say pre-adolescence has struck with a vengeance. First pimple. But she’s the bright point for your dad. Last year he said she looked like your mom when she was her age. Really? Did they know each other when your mom was 10?”

“No,” Mike said as he ferried mashed potatoes to the table. “They didn’t meet until Dad was out of boot camp. I think his mind has snatched those photos of Mom when she was a kid -- curly black hair like Morgan -- and woven them into his memory, like he knew her all along.”

The doorbell rang. “Doorbell!” Morgan yelled, raced down the stairs, threw open the door, and flung herself on her grandfather. He nearly fell over, but smiled and even laughed as the whole family greeted him at the door.

“Thanks for the sweater, Grandpa,” Morgan said.

Her grandpa looked over her to Susan who nodded.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Does it fit?”

“I’m wearing it.”

He chuckled, “I didn’t notice.”

They moved straight to the table for their Christmas meal. “I wasn’t sure I’d get here on time. Seems the traffic’s worse every year. Idiots passing right, then left. But lots of police out. Saw a bunch of cars stopped. Should throw those speeders in jail. But, if they get them there, seems like they keep letting them -- ”

Susan interrupted, “We’re just glad you made it safely, Dad.”

As they ate, they recalled past Christmases. Mike’s father related the first Christmas he and Mike’s mother were married. “Pat and I had nothing. Guess we needed nothing. Seems like people today have to load up on things, things, things.”

Susan said, “Christmas Day in our family included naps in the afternoon. We went to the candle light worship Christmas Eve, got home late, then we kids wanted to get up early to open presents. At least our going to worship tonight allowed a good sleep last night. Did you remember, Dad, worship’s at six?”

He nodded.

“Morgan’s reading in the service tonight,” Mike said.

Grandfather looked up from his cranberry sauce, “You practiced?”

“A lot,” she said.

“Good, he said. “I’ve been in church so many times, especially Christmas, where the kids and most of the adults can’t even speak into the microphone. It’s like they don’t care if people hear or not.”

They arrived early to the church for the service. Before Morgan left to join the other worship leaders, she gave her grandfather a hug, “I’ll do my best, Grandpa.”

He smiled and patted her black curly hair, “Good, Pat ... uh... Morgan.”

As the three adults waited in the congregation, Mike’s father’s head sagged and he slept for a few minutes. When he woke and saw Susan looking at him, he said, “Just...just getting my strength up.” Susan pointed him to see Morgan sitting with the worship team in the chancel.

When worship began, Morgan was first to read scripture. She marched to the lectern, pulled the microphone down in front of her mouth and spoke with perfect diction, “From Isaiah chapter 52, reading from the best news we could ever hear.”

Susan glanced at Mike’s father. He shook his head quickly as if to clear his thinking, pursed his lips, closed his eyes tightly and was swallowing hard. Susan nodded and whispered to herself, “Good news will do that to a person.”     

Preaching Point: God’s good news arrives in difficult situations from unexpected directions.

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

StoryShare, December 25, 2017, issue.

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

All rights reserved. Subscribers to the StoryShare service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons, in worship and classroom settings, in brief devotions, in radio spots, and as newsletter fillers. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to permissions@csspub.com or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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