I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
The Word of the Lord.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed. Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord! Amen.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
The Word of the Lord.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
The Coming of the Light: The Holy Gospel according to Saint John 1:1-9
(read by Glenn Eisenbrey)
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
The Gospel of our Lord.
“Christmas Hallelujah” by Susan Johnston and Lindsay Johnston
The Angel Visits Mary: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 1:26-35
(read by Kenna Markley)
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
The Gospel of our Lord.
“The First Noel” – by Brenda Firquin
Mary and Elizabeth: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 1:41-45
(read by Bob Meyer)
41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
The Gospel of our Lord.
“Mary Did You Know” by Susan Johnston and Lindsay Johnston
Mary’s Song: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 1:46-56
(read by Cathy Meyer)
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with [Elizabeth] about three months and then returned to her home.
The Gospel of our Lord.
“Silent Night” – by Dolores McCloud
Joseph’s Dream: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew 1:18-24
(read by Paul Kiser)
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
The Gospel of our Lord.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Brenda Firquin
Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:1-7
(read by Steven Sarson)
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Gospel of our Lord.
“Silent Night” by Karen Eisenbrey
The Angels and the Shepherds: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:8-14
(read by Jack McFarland)
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The Gospel of our Lord.
“O Holy Night” by Susan Johnston and Lindsay Johnston
The Shepherds Worship Jesus: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:15-20
(read by Rod Firquin)
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Gospel of our Lord.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” by Brenda Firquin
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Wow – just – wow! What a doozy of a year this one has been! Seriously – 2020 has certainly been one wild – weird – and not so wonderful – roller coaster ride – hasn’t it?
There are so many things I thought I might live through and need to respond to as a pastor and a mom – but honestly – a global pandemic wasn’t even on my radar. . .
It feels like our lives have all been turned upside down and inside out – and then tossed around a bit for good (or not so good) measure!
And – sadly – this year has been filled with just so much bad news. Really – really wretchedly awful news. News that breaks our hearts and troubles our souls. News we don’t want to hear anymore. But it just keeps coming and coming and coming!
The news is filled with so much sorrow. So much sickness and suffering. So much pain. So much grief. So many precious – beloved lives lost. So many questions about the future. Questions about our future. Questions about our beloved children’s future. The damaged economy. So much unemployment. So many hurting people.
So much heartache. So much loneliness. So much fear. So much anger. So much hurt. So very – very much hurt! So much seriously – wretchedly awful bad news. There is just so much bad news these days! It can be absolutely – positively exhausting. All of this bad news has a way of weighing you down. All of this bad news can feel like it is just too much to bear.
And now the cancelled Christmas gatherings. The missed visits with beloved family and friends. It may be the right thing to do but Zooming with grandma just isn’t the same as snuggling with her on the couch. It may be the morally responsible thing to do but Google Meeting with grandpa certainly isn’t the same as lingering with him around the Christmas tree. The additional disappointments on top of the already difficult year are so hard to take.
The pain and sorrow can quickly become all we think about. The bad news can become all we talk about. Soon our focus can be only on the negative and the bad and the yuck and the terrible and the miserable. And on the disappointments and on what is wrong in our lives.
We can get lost in the mire of the bad news.
But then this evening – something absolutely – positively amazing happens. This evening the news we hear is completely and utterly different from what we have grown so used to hearing. The news we hear this evening is awesome. The news we hear is glorious. The news is extraordinary. The news we hear promises to transform our lives for all eternity! This evening the Good News of God’s grace – love – and mercy breaks forth into our lives with all of its radiant – glorious promise!
Hear again the angel’s – amazingly – awesome – life transforming declaration to the shepherds and to us – “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Do not be afraid. Your Savior has been born. Your Savior has come into the world. The Messiah is here. Our Lord has come to save us from our sinful selves!
This year of all years – we all need to remind ourselves – why we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Christmas – because of one incredibly special baby boy who changed the world forever.
The stars in the sky celebrated – his birth. The angels in heaven rejoiced on his birthday. Kings journeyed from afar to meet and worship this baby boy.
His birth has changed the lives of billions of people all over the world forever. Because Jesus was no ordinary baby. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is our Lord and Savior.
Jesus was born was so that we might receive the greatest gifts of all – the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life spent in heaven with our Lord.
Jesus Christ came to save us from our sinful selves.
We celebrate Christmas because Jesus is our Savior. We celebrate because we have all received the gifts of God’s grace – love – and forgiveness.
We celebrate Christmas because Jesus Christ – saved us from our sinful selves and opened the doors of heaven for us all.
“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19
How do you choose to decorate your home for Christmas? Do you have favorite decorations that you put up every single year without fail? Do you have a theme? Are you restrained or do you go ALL in? Are you traditional or do you lean contemporary? This time of year there are so many choices to choose!
I like to think of my decorating style as McFarland-crafty. And yes – I do know I made that up! I like to make things up. Making things up is lots of fun! And therefore – many of my favorite Christmas decorations have been lovingly crafted by McFarland hands.
I grew up in a house where creativity and craftiness weren’t valued. It was pretty boring – even at Christmastime. The Christmas tree had white lights and gold balls and only decorations that matched the beige living room where it sat. (Snooze . . .) The decorations came from a big box store. They didn’t have any history. They didn’t tell a story. They had no personality. (Total snooze fest!)
I lean the other way. Now my house loudly and proudly declares that crafty folk dwell within its walls. Actually – our home shouts this. Our dining room centerpiece is always a huge wooden tray filled with a glorious array of craft supplies. We make stuff – lots of stuff! And we love it! Our home is crafty and our Christmas decorations reflect our leanings.
Sophisticated and subdued just isn’t the way we lean with our Christmas decorating. Our home’s Christmas decorating theme is likely an interior decorator’s nightmare! Our theme is joyful celebration. Our theme is all over the place. Our theme is zany color. Our theme is just about anything goes. Our theme is let’s go for it! Our theme is – no theme?!? Our theme is McFarland-crafty!
This week I grabbed the camera and snapped a few pictures of my very favorite Christmas decorations – and I quickly noticed another theme. Memories often go with the crafting. My favorite decorations all seem to be centered around one or both of those two themes. Many of my favorite Christmas decorations are chalk-full of special memories.
I had so much fun thinking about the memories behind my favorite Christmas decorations. I felt so blessed by these memories. My heart was filled to overflowing . . .
I highly recommend taking some time this week to appreciate your favorite Christmas decorations. (And if – you still haven’t decorated for Christmas – it isn’t too late!). Take some time delight in the beauty of your favorite decorations. Spend some time enjoying them. Take a trip or forty-two down memory lane. Give yourself the blessing of giving thanks.
Snap a picture or two or eight with your phone and send the pictures to your kids or grandkids or your dearest friend and tell them the story behind why you cherish these particular Christmas decorations.
Did your oldest daughter make that ornament when she was in Girl Scouts? Did you find that nativity on a once in a lifetime trip with your beloved? Is that Christmas bowl from your great-aunt? Was that odd looking reindeer your son’s first Christmas present to you from his pre-school days? What are the stories behind your favorite Christmas decorations? Why do you put them up in your home year after year?
Enjoy your memories. Delight in them. Celebrate them. Give thanks for them!
I pray you are all safe and well and finding ways to delight in the blessings of this most glorious of seasons. You are in my heart, thoughts, and prayers.
What are your favorite memories of Christmases past? Do you have favorite Christmas traditions? What do you love about Christmas? What makes Christmas feel like Christmas to you?
I know some of our favorite traditions will need to be different this year. Sometimes they will need to be very – very different.
This is hard. Change is hard at any time. But change involving anything as sacred as traditions – especially family Christmas celebrations – well – that is dangerous territory indeed!
After all – we tend to gather joyfully with the same people and eat the same special – favorite foods – at the same time – in the same place – every single year. We open our presents in the same way every year. We attend the same worship service at the same time every year for decades.
We love our traditions. We look forward to them – year after year. Our traditions comfort us. They are anchors in an often tumultuous world. They are grounding.
I love how different everyones’ traditions are. I love listening to folks share their beloved traditions. Our traditions are as unique as our families are.
Your family eats lasagna every Christmas and adores it. But our family would stage a full scale rebellion if Mimi’s menu changed even one iota. Lasagna – while yummy – is not acceptable Christmas fare at our house. There must be ham, turkey, and roast beef (apparently many animals must be sacrificed for our holiday meal to be complete). Your family loves lefse. Most of mine doesn’t know what on earth it is! Your beloved family dines on stroganoff on fine china, but another family will only even consider dining on Chinese take-away on paper plates.
We open our Christmas presents as soon as the children open their eyes. Other families eat breakfast or even lunch – before a single present is opened!
Your family ALWAYS goes to the 5:00 pm worship service on Christmas Eve – because only a crazy person (or the pastor – which is the same thing – I suppose) would go to church at 11:00 pm!
We love our traditions. They are incredibly important to us. I understand. I really do. Our family has beloved traditions too. The McFarland sons are big on tradition. And their mom is even bigger on tradition! As Jason will tell you – I stink at change! But even folks who are good at change in other areas of their lives – resist change when it comes to celebrating Christmas and long held family traditions.
And so this year is going to be hard for so many folks. We are being asked to make big changes in areas of our lives that are especially sacred to us. Not being with loved ones on Christmas is a huge loss and a truly significant sacrifice. Not being able to gather for worship in-person in Saint Stephen’s sanctuary with your church family on Christmas Eve just plain hurts. Giving up long held – beloved traditions makes our hearts ache.
It feels like this year has been filled with so many no’s and can’ts and shouldn’ts and don’ts. Many of us are just plain exhausted or sad or angry or hurting or all of the above!
But I would like to remind you (and myself) that the very first Christmas was quiet. The very first Christmas was humble. The very first Christmas didn’t have a fancy dinner or piles of presents. The first Christmas didn’t come with 27 kinds of cookies and homemade candy. The very first Christmas probably felt lonely and strange and even frightening to Mary and Joseph who were so very far from their beloved family and from all that was familiar to them on the night their firstborn son was born. The first Christmas wasn’t easy or comfortable. The very first Christmas wasn’t surrounded by decades of traditions.
I encourage you to take some time this week to re-read the Christmas story from your Bibles. (Hint – look in the Gospel of Matthew chapters 1 and 2 and the Gospel of Luke chapters 1 and 2.) And image what it was like to be Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas as they welcomed their first-born son into the world in such humble circumstances. Imagine what it was like to welcome the Savior of the world into their hearts and their lives!
I love the trees and the carols and the cookies and the big gatherings. But honestly – as Christians we know – Christmas really and truly isn’t about any of that. Christmas is about the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Perhaps if we focus on Jesus and the birth of our Lord and Savior – it will help. Focusing on Jesus and God’s love for us will help us keep the rest of it in perspective.
This Advent and Christmas season we have all thought and talked a lot about what we cannot do. We have focused so much of our attention and our energy on what is missing and on what stinks and on what hurts. We have focused like a laser on the yuck and the misery and on what we do not like.
I get it. I understand. I really and truly do. I share your disappointment with the cancelled worship services and the cancelled parties and the cancelled Christmas program. I wanted to sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve with my beloved church family. I longed to watch your familiar faces all aglow in the candlelight on Christmas Eve. Lutherans look really good in candlelight. You look just a bit angelic! I wanted to see Santa and Mrs. Claus at the ladies’ tea. I wanted the big tree in the sanctuary and the big celebrations!
I wanted what I cannot have this year. I wanted the noise and the fun and the joy and the celebrations. I wanted it ALL!
Of course – Christmas 2020 – isn’t what I wish it could be. Of course – I would rather we were all gathering together for in-person worship on Christmas Eve in the Saint Stephen sanctuary.
But – thanks to some very talented Lutherans – our on-line Christmas Eve worship service should be very meaningful too. You will hear and see quite a few of your beloved sisters and brothers in Christ who graciously volunteered to help Jack and me with the Christmas Eve worship service.
There will be Christmas carols galore! There will be very special – special music. You will be invited to hear the glorious Good News of the Christmas story. You will be invited to share in Holy Communion.
I encourage you as you prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve – to join us for worship. I encourage you to make Holy Communion a part of your worship on Christmas Eve too.
Most of you already have exactly what you need to celebrate Holy Communion in your homes. You have wine or grape juice and you have bread or crackers. Jesus used what he already had to celebrate Holy Communion at the Last Supper. Jesus literally picked up the bread and the wine that were on the supper table right in front of him and used those. He didn’t order anything special. Jesus used what was available to him. Jesus used what he had.
We can do the exact same thing! We can use what we have in our homes.
I invite you – to set up wine or grape juice and bread before you watch the Christmas Eve worship service. Then you can celebrate Holy Communion as a part of your home worship service. There will be a place in the liturgy just for this.
Light a few candles. Get dressed up. Celebrate Holy Communion. Make an effort to draw near to your Lord.
I know this Christmas will be different. I know on-line worship doesn’t feel the same as worshipping with your church family in the sanctuary – but remember God promises to be with us no matter where we are in this life. God promises us that nothing in this life can separate us from his love. God is with you today. God will be with you tomorrow. And God will most certainly be with you on Christmas Eve.
1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 3Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 16Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
The Word of the Lord.
46bMy soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, 47my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: 49you, the Almighty, have done great things for me and holy is your name. 50You have mercy on those who fear you, from generation to generation. 51You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, 52casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. 53You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. 54You have come to the aid of your servant Israel, to remember the promise of mercy, 55the promise made to our forbears, to Abraham and his children forever. Amen.
25Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
The Word of the Lord.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 1:26-38
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
The Gospel of our Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Life is full of all sorts of disappointments. Some of the disappointments are little like getting stuck with the grape popsicle when you really wanted the cherry one.
Or of getting the ugly brown sweater for Christmas every single year while your cousin Kristen always got the super cute red sweater.
But some disappointments are bigger. Some disappointments stick with you . . . Some disappointments even become sermon illustrations!
Like being a fearless public speaker from a pretty young age who repeatedly and eagerly volunteered to play Mary in the church Christmas pageant – but was never cast – all because she had thick masses of naturally curly – brown hair.
Apparently you had to be blonde to be cast as the mother of our Lord and Savior in the church Christmas pageant in the 1980’s. Because year after year that is who was chosen – one of the pretty blonde girls. (Not that I hold this against women with blonde hair – in general. Some of my dearest – most beloved friends are kinda-sorta blondes!)
The closest I ever got to being Mary in the church Christmas play was angel number 3!
When I was 8 – I desperately wanted to be the mother of our Lord and Savior (at least for 15 minutes on a Sunday morning in December.)
But as I have gotten older – I have become more fearful and more reluctant to jump in with both feet. Now I worry. I am less likely to volunteer. I am cautious and far less likely to say “Yes!”
And I would guess I am not alone. I think life does this to so many of us. Life can leave us reluctant to say yes. So I want us to think about saying yes. To think about what it means to be bold enough and brave enough to say yes!
In our Gospel reading for this week – Mary says – yes! Mary said yes to being the mother of the Savior of the world. Think about what that news meant to Mary. And to Joseph – to her parents and to all the people who loved Mary.
Think about what this news meant to the entire world – and what it means to you.
Mary may have been sweeping the floor, tending the fire or baking bread. Mary would have been hard at work. Because life back then was filled with hard work for ordinary people like Mary.
As Mary worked she suddenly heard a commanding voice say: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
What an odd greeting! Mary must have wondered who he was and what this odd greeting meant. Because even back then – people didn’t speak that formally.
“Do not be afraid, Mary,” the stranger declared, “you have found favor with God.”
“What did he mean by saying she had found favor with God?”
As if things weren’t bizarre enough – the stranger went on to say – “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. . .”
“What?” – Mary must have thought. “How could that be? She wasn’t even married yet.” And frankly this would be devastatingly bad news.
The stranger wasn’t done. He had even more shocking news. He declared “your son will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Would her baby really be the Messiah everyone had been praying and hoping for – for so long?
Mary was stunned. Mary’s thoughts raced. God’s son – who would ever believe that?
What would Joseph say? What would Joseph do? Could he ever understand?
What about her parents and their friends and neighbors? How would they treat her?
And what would it mean to be the mother of the Messiah? Would anyone believe her?
Saying yes would make her life so very – very complicated.
But – Mary also knew God had chosen and called her to be the mother of His Son. God thought she was the right woman for this incredibly important job.
And so Mary said yes, even though it might cost her everything she held dear!
Mary said yes.
God can and does ask us to do things we never thought we could or would do. God can ask things of us we are not sure we have the courage to do. Being called by God can seem overwhelming – even frightening.
The truth is – when God calls you – you do have two options. You can say no or you can say yes.
But if you say no to God’s call – you will be missing out on so much. Some challenges yes – but on so much joy. And on a multitude of blessings.
Think about Mary. She could have said no to God – she could have told the angel she did not want to be the mother of the Messiah. She could have decided the job sounded like too much work or that it sounded too frightening.
And if she had said no – life would have been easier – less complicated – more normal. She would never have faced the responsibility of raising the Savior of the world. She wouldn’t have had to watch her son die on a Roman cross.
But think of all she would have missed. Mary would have missed the amazing joy that came from being Jesus’ mother. She wouldn’t have heard those angel choruses – or met the wise men – or seen the awe and joy on the shepherds’ faces.
She would have never known these joys – and her life would have certainly been less meaningful – less rich – less blessed.
The same is true for you. God calls each of you to serve him too.
And you can say no – or you can say yes. And even though saying yes to God might be frightening or intimidating – when you say yes to God – you are saying yes to the amazing joy that comes from knowing and serving your Lord. Truly this is Good News. AMEN.
My sweet William is so excited these days that I fear he may explode! The little guy seems to vibrate with excitement and joyful anticipation. There are times when he just can’t contain his excitement any longer and he breaks out into the cutest little happy dance. Seriously – he just starts to boogie! (When was the last time you were so happy that you let yourself dance just for the joy of it?)
The countdown to Christmas is like that when you are just 7 adorable years old. It is all just so very – very exciting. Christmas is coming. His Advent calendar tells him so. (The wild and wooly look in his mommy’s eyes probably tells him so too! As a pastor and a mom – I find Advent and Christmas to be intense . . . sometimes it makes me twitchy . . .)
And our sweet boy has the added fun of having a birthday on the winter solstice! December 21st – isn’t the easiest birthday to have when you are little. It really – really – really adds to the intensity of this time of year. Almost ALL of Will’s gifts come in just a 4 day time span during the year. It means sooooooooooooo much waiting and waiting and waiting.
At least he wasn’t born on his original due date of Christmas Day! I will never forget our doctor sharing that bit of news with Jason and me. A pastor’s child born on Christmas Day . . .
These days of waiting for Will are so – so very exciting and INTENSE! And because Will is who he is – he shares his joy with almost everyone in his life. Our littlest boy – shares his joy. He doesn’t hide his happiness. He doesn’t try to contain what he is feeling or thinking. He lets you know!
I love being a part of Will’s excitement and joy. Just last night when he and I were headed upstairs for the evening I declared – “Will – I want to be YOU – when I grow up!” and I absolutely – positively meant it. In many ways Will is my role model these days.
To which Will replied – “Mom – you can’t be me when you grow up – because you are ALREADY grown-up.”
Oh – bummer! Well – then if I can’t be Will when I grow up – I shall strive to be more like Will.
(Will is so kind – so happy – so joyful – so generous – so completely comfortable in his own skin. Will is so all-in when it comes to living life to the fullest. Our boy LAUGHS – oh can he laugh! My boy is BOLD and brave. He is fun and funny. Yep – I want to be Will when I grow up! He is also strongly opinionated and will let you know exactly what he is thinking – but I love his confidence too. Jason reminds me that this stubborn confidence means he is less likely to be bullied by mean people or to care if he is. William McFarland would never jump off the proverbial bridge because everyone else was. Nope – he might lead them to the bridge – but jump – only if he thought it looked like fun!)
I think in the next few weeks and into the next year my goal shall be to live life more like Will does. I am going to seek to be a whole lot more Will-ish!
I am going to worry less about the stress of preparing for Christmas and focus more on the excitement and the joy. Remember how it felt to be 7 years old and waiting for Christmas? Wasn’t it amazing? It was so much fun. It felt so good to be so excited!
I am going to look for the joy. I am going to enjoy and delight in the people I love. I am going to spontaneously tell my loved ones that I love them. William does this all of the time. Out of the blue Will tells us he loves us all of the time. We should all tell our loved ones that we love them more often. Can you ever tell your spouse or your children or your grandchildren or your friends that you love them too often?
Will expresses his joy. He feels it. He tells terrible jokes – really awful jokes. But his jokes make all of us smile. His joy and his smiles are contagious. His belly laughs are hilarious. I am going to seek joy and share my joy. I am going to keep looking for the good and the lovely and the beautiful in this world. I am going to seek reminders of God’s presence and I am going to tell people about them – OFTEN!
I understand this Christmas for so many of us is going to be different. Christmas 2020 is certainly going to come with many challenges and disappointments and heartaches. Covid-19 keeps bringing more pain and frustration and hurt into our lives. But – there is good here too. Joy can be found. Blessing can be remembered. God is with us. We are never alone. Really – we are never alone. God has promised us this.
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
The Word of the Lord.
1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. 2Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” 3The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. 4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negeb. 5Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. 6Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil. 23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
The Word of the Lord.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint John 1:6-8, 19-28
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. 24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
The Gospel of our Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Christmas is coming.
Many of us have been making our lists and checking them twice a day for weeks now! I know that I have been.
Just last week – I started thinking and worrying and brooding about Christmas while we drove through Kentucky. We were south of Richmond, Kentucky when I started thinking about Christmas and I got so wrapped up in thinking and planning and worrying about Christmas that the next thing I knew we were outside of Georgetown. I completely and utterly missed Lexington. Seriously – I don’t remember seeing any of Lexington. None of it!!!
I am so very – very thankful Jason was driving! And I am sure Jason and the boys were thankful that he was driving too!!!
I love Christmas. And for me a huge part of the joy of Christmas is the fun of getting ready for the big day. I love planning and plotting and preparing!
But as our family rode through the dark December evening I wish I could say I was thinking about the joy of preparing for our Savior’s birth. I wish I was thinking about the blessing of baking cookies with my sons and choosing the perfect presents for my loved ones. I wish I was thinking about decorating gingerbread houses and hanging wreaths. And writing Christmas cards and decorating the Christmas tree with my men.
But nope – I wasn’t doing anything like that.
Rather I was thinking about how sad I am there won’t be a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus this year at the ladies’ Christmas Tea at church – because there won’t be a tea this year. I love seeing Santa and Mrs. Claus.
I was feeling bummed because there won’t be a Christmas carol Sunday in worship or a children’s Christmas program.
I was feeling put out because there won’t be a candlelight Christmas Eve worship service thanks to this wretched virus that just keeps raging on and on and on.
I was sad because Covid-19 means that we needed to cancel in-person worship at Saint Stephen for both Easter and Christmas this year!
I was brooding and feeling just plain sad.
I wanted Christmas the way I wanted Christmas. I wanted Advent at Saint Stephen with my sisters and brothers in Christ. I wanted a Ladies’ Christmas Tea. I wanted caroling and candlelight worship. I wanted dozens of bright red poinsettias and Chrismons and a noisy bustling Sunday school Christmas program with angels and shepherds and wise men who wander around just a little bit. And well – I wanted what I can’t have this year.
I wanted what would be dangerous and unwise and deeply selfish for me to demand!
I know this and so I will stay safely at home. I will wear my mask. I will keep my distance. I will cancel in-person gatherings. I will send cards filled with love instead. I will record my sermons and write my blogs and go to Zoom Sunday school. I will wait and do what we are all being asked to do by people our Lord made much – much wiser than me.
And I will strive to remember each and every day that although this year is undeniably different. And most of us can’t have the Advent we are used to or the Christmas we long for – it doesn’t mean we have nothing to be thankful for. It doesn’t mean we are alone or that we have been forsaken by our God. It doesn’t mean we aren’t deeply and abundantly blessed. It doesn’t mean we don’t have good things and wonderful people in our lives.
We are blessed. We do have wonderful people in our lives. We do have good things.
Saint Paul concludes his first letter to the people of Thessalonica with the incredibly important reminder that we are all called to give God thanks in ALL circumstances.
In all circumstances . . .
And I think this is such an incredibly important reminder for us to hear right now. Yes – Advent and Christmas this year may feel strange. They may look and feel very different than they have in years past – but we are still so blessed by our God.
And just because the Thanksgiving holiday was officially last month – doesn’t mean we should be done counting our blessings from God.
We are so blessed. We are deeply – wildly – wonderfully blessed. God showers us with blessings each and every day of our lives. And it is so good for our souls when we remember to count our blessings and to give our God thanks.
We are called to be grateful people. We are called to remember God blesses us over and over again. Even now – in the middle of this horribly wretched global pandemic – our Lord has continued to bless us.
Take time this Advent season to thank God for the ways He has blessed you. Thank God for the blessings in your life. We are blessed. Truly this is Good News. AMEN.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:6-9
Advent is the first season of the church year. Advent means new beginnings for us. It is also a season preparation and hope. And oh how we need hope right now. Oh how we long for hope these days. Hope! Yes – HOPE!
For Christians our hope centers on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As Christians we wait in hopeful expectation for the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our hope – no matter the season – rests firmly in Jesus! Jesus is God’s grace, love, and mercy made flesh!
And so – our hearts long for the arrival of Jesus. We yearn for our Savior – because we know just how much we need Jesus. We desperately need our Savior. We see the brokenness all around us. We see the brokenness in our own lives. We see our own brokenness. We trip and stumble over our brokenness and sinfulness every single day. When we are honest with ourselves – we know we are a sinful broken mess (even on our best days), and there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
We need outside help. We need a lifeline. We need a Savior. We need Jesus. We need hope.
We wait. Because Jesus is coming! We prepare. Because our Lord and Savior is arriving soon! The advent of our Lord is imminent! Hope made flesh is on the way! Hope is coming.
And we should also remember – we are not alone. We are never alone. Never! God has promised us this. Even now – in these long – dark nights of late fall and early winter – God is with us. No matter how dark things get in this world – God is with us. God is always faithful.
God is with us. God is here. God is all around us. Our God is our constant companion.
I have been watching and hoping and waiting expectantly this week. And I have seen beautiful reminders of God’s presence in our world. I have been reminded of God’s presence in my life.
How about you? Where are you seeing God’s presence in your life these days? How are you being reminded that God is with you always? How are you seeking God’s presence?
I encourage you to take some time during these busy days to seek God’s presence. I encourage you to remind yourself that you are never alone. God is with us. God is with you. You are loved. You are so loved that God sent his beloved son Jesus Christ into the world to save you from yourself and to give you the blessing eternal life!
Last Monday morning we woke to heavy – gray skies. It looked so very – very Monday-ish outside. It was sort of like the sky knew the long – relaxing holiday weekend was over and it was time for all of us to head back to work and school.
Blahhhhh! I thought as I made my morning coffee. BlahhHH! I thought as I drank my coffee. Boo – hiss! I thought as I drank my second cup of coffee. Yuck! (It sounded seriously grumpy in my brain last Monday morning!)
The family consensus was the gray skies were conspiring to make us sleepy and shockingly unmotivated. We were all feeling slothful, sleepy, and sluggish. There was very little zip in any of the McFarlands or pep in our steps!
But at the appointed start time McFarland-4 dug deep and got to work. We do thrive on routine at our house! Will started in on his reading and Jack went to his first virtual class of the day. Jason and I got to work too. This was going to be a busy week for us no matter what color those skies were outside or how un-zippy we were feeling.
And then – as Will and I sat at the dining room table working away – the most exciting thing started to happen. Will noticed the heavy gray sky wasn’t drip-dropping rain anymore. It was snowing! The first snow of this winter-y season was falling outside (and yes – I know it is technically still late fall).
Great big – gorgeous – sloppy – wet white blobs of snow were falling from the gray sky. Now the sky didn’t look blahhh – it looked beautiful! Absolutely – positively beautiful! Gradually it started to snow more and more until – it was really and truly SNOWING!
Soon the landscape was transformed into a winter wonderland. And we were transformed too! Suddenly it felt so cozy to be all snuggled up in the house working away together as the snow fell outside. We felt like cozy companions and not grumpy grouches!
After our work was done we headed outside to explore and to enjoy the falling snow. It was really so lovely. The world around us looked so different blanketed in snow.
It sounded different too! It always amazes me how snow makes the world quieter somehow. I love the hush that falling snow brings to the world around us.
After exploring there was hot chocolate with a ridiculous amount of marshmallows for some of us and hot tea for others of us.
In the end – we had an absolutely gloriously beautiful start to our week!
I still think I prefer summer flowers and green leaves dancing in the hot breeze. But the white snow drifting slowly from the winter-y sky was awfully pretty too.
I was reminded of God’s presence in the gentle silence of the falling snow and the beauty all around us.
Where are you seeing God’s presence in your lives these days? How is God making himself known to you?