Worship for Sunday, December 26, 2021

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home.

Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.

The Word of the Lord.

Psalm 148

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise God in the heights.
Praise the Lord, all you angels;
sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.
Praise the Lord, sun and moon;
sing praise, all you shining stars.
Praise the Lord, heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
who commanded, and they were created,
who made them stand fast forever and ever,
giving them a law that shall not pass away. 
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps;
fire and hail, snow and fog,
tempestuous wind, doing God’s will;

mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars;
wild beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds;
sovereigns of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the world;
young men and maidens,
old and young together. 
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over earth and heaven.
The Lord has raised up strength for the people and praise for all faithful servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near the Lord. Hallelujah!
 

Colossians 3:12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The Word of the Lord.

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:41-52

Now every year [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.   When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.   When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”   He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.   Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The Gospel of our Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Discovering that your child is missing must be something every parent fears.

Last week while I was out getting a few last-minute Christmas essentials – I heard a woman shouting – her child’s name – over and over again. You knew he was lost by the tone of her voice. It was one of panic. She was filled with fear. She was living what she prayed wasn’t her worst nightmare come true.

I noticed almost every parent and grandparent and auntie or uncle or person with a soul in the store was scanning the area around them for a little boy without a grown-up.

The store was full of people who were busy Christmas shopping – but soon many of them had stopped searching for bargains – and started searching for a lost little boy named Jeremiah. These folks knew what really mattered that December morning.

We may have all been strangers – but we all were united in our search for Jeremiah who was wearing a red sweatshirt.

Eyes scanned the aisles – under racks – and peered through stacks of sweaters searching out any place where a child might be hiding.

His mother kept calling his name. Fear causing her voice to catch – until the call – rang out – “I found him – I found him – I’ve got him. He’s fine! He’s right here!”

Jeremiah was found in the toy department looking at all of the wonderful toys.

We all know the world can be a hard – cruel place – and no child should have to face the world alone.   So – we care for the children in our lives and protect them and surround them with love.

Mary and Joseph certainly felt the same way about Jesus. They watched over Jesus – trying to protect him and to keep him safe and secure.

But no matter how well behaved the child is and no matter how careful the parents are – frightening things happen.

In fact – one of these frightening episodes took place in our Gospel reading for today.

After their annual trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover – Mary and Joseph packed up their family and headed home to Nazareth. But they made the mistake of assuming Jesus was with their traveling party. They probably thought he was just hanging out with his friends.   Because what self-respecting 12-year-old wants to hang out with his parents?

But when Jesus doesn’t turn up for supper that evening Mary and Joseph grow concerned and begin searching for Jesus.   They ask everyone they see – if they have seen Jesus. But it quickly becomes clear – Jesus is not with their group.

Once they realize Jesus was not with their traveling party – they head back to Jerusalem with fear in their hearts and tears in their eyes. After all – Jesus was not exactly a worldly boy. Jesus had spent most of his young life in a small town where everyone knew everyone else.

Even more frightening was the fact that under normal circumstances Jerusalem was a large city filled with thousands of people. But during Passover the city’s population swelled. Mary and Joseph must have wondered how they would ever find their beloved son in the midst of that huge – bustling city.

The Bible tells us they searched Jerusalem for three days without finding their child. By this time Mary and Joseph’s fear must have become terror.

Then finally on the third day of their search – they find Jesus in the Temple.

We can only imagine the great joy and relief Mary and Joseph felt when they finally found Jesus.

But as their elation at finding Jesus begins to wear off – Mary declares – “Son – why have you treated us like this? Look – we have been anxiously searching for you.”

We might expect Jesus – the sinless son – to beg for forgiveness or to shed tears of remorse. But rather than begging for their forgiveness – Jesus asks his mother – “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I would be in my Father’s house?”

This seems sort of like the equivalent of the modern – “Well – duh – Mom.”

And you know – Jesus had a point – Jesus was in his heavenly Father’s house where he knew – he was safe. Jesus had been with God – where he knew he belonged.   Jesus knew he could never be really lost because God the Father was with him always.

This world can be a frightening place – filled with all sorts of scary things. There are times when we too can start to feel lost and alone in the world.

But just as Jesus told Mary he was never lost or alone because he was safe with his heavenly Father. The same is true for each of you. Even when you are confronted by the difficulties of this life you are not alone. God is with you too. You are never alone. Because God has made you a promise. There is no place that you will ever go in this life that God is not there with you. And nothing in this life can separate you from God’s love.

The writer of Psalm 139 reminds us of this incredible promise when he writes – “O Lord . . . where can I go from your spirit?   Or where can I flee from your presence?   If I ascend to heaven, you are there.   If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.”

God is with you always. God is with you every step of the way. You are never lost and you are never alone – because you are a beloved child of God forever. Truly this is Good News. AMEN.

Christmas Eve Worship 2021

The Angel Visits Mary: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 1:26-35

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The 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.

Joseph’s Dream: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew 1:18-24

Now 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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When 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.

Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:1-7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.

The Angels and the Shepherds: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The Gospel of our Lord.

The Shepherds Worship Jesus: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 2:15-20

When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Gospel of our Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Wow – just – wow! What a year 2021 has been! Actually – what a couple of years it has been!

We started this year with so much hope. And some of us may have even started the year with a teeny – tiny spark of optimism. We started 2021 thinking this would be the year we finally put the pandemic behind us and waved a cheery good-bye!

But then . . . Well – reality has proven itself to be so much more real! And so much more complicated – hasn’t it?

Seriously – 2021 has certainly been one wild – weird – and not so wonderful – roller coaster ride. So many ups and downs. So many highs and lows. And all of those twists and turns!

Being human in this broken – messed up world has been hard on us.

After all – this year has been filled with a lot of bad 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 anyway!

The pandemic and the variants (so many variants). And wildfires and droughts and floods. Building collapses and ever-increasing violence in our community. School shootings and accidents and now the one of the worst tornado disasters in our state’s history.

And then there is the absolutely bizarre economy. So many open jobs and hiring signs and stores and restaurants with weird hours. And the inflation and supply chain issues. We are all noticing the cost of everything going up and up and up!

And now there are the questions around the Omicron variant.   We may be done with Covid-19 – but it clearly isn’t done with us!

All of this bad news can be absolutely – positively exhausting.

The bad news can quickly become all we think and talk about.   Soon our focus can be on the negative and the bad and the yuck. And on the disappointments and on what is wrong in our lives.

We can get lost in the mire of the bad news. We can become overwhelmed and cynical. And maybe even angry . . .

Until we end up – sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge with his “bahh – humm – bugs” or the Grinch who was so determined to steal Christmas!   And when we do – we miss out on so much joy and beauty and so much that makes life in this world just plain FUN!

I will be honest – Jason and I have been leaning pretty heavily into Will’s Christmas joy this year. Because the littlest McFarland just turned 9 and he knows joyful Christmas expectation! Oh – does our boy know joy! And Will has been bringing the blessed – glorious excitement of the season into our lives like it is his full-time job. Will reminds us daily – hourly (minute-ly) that this season is filled with light and promise and a whole lot of AWESOMENESS!

And then this evening something even better happens than a super-duper excited 3rd grader!

Actually – something absolutely – positively – amazingly – gloriously – miraculously awesome happens this evening.

We hear the best news in the world! This evening the news we hear is awesome and glorious. This news is so extraordinary – it is almost too good to be true.

But IT IS TRUE! It is absolutely – positively – awesomely TRUE! And the news we hear tonight 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 – 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. Do not be afraid. Your Savior has come into your world. Do not be afraid. The Messiah is here – with you. Do not be afraid. Our Lord has come to save us from our sinful selves! Do not be afraid. Our Savior has come to transform death into eternal life!

Do Not Be Afraid! This isn’t a command or an order or an obligation. This is an invitation. An invitation to know the best news we will ever hear in our entire lives!

Our Savior has been born!

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. Humble shepherds shared the great and glorious news of his birth and kings journeyed from afar to meet and worship this baby boy.

His birth has changed the lives of billions of people forever.

Because Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is our Lord and our Savior.

Jesus was born so that we might receive the greatest gifts of all – the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life spent with our Lord in heaven.

Jesus came to save us from our sinful – broken – all too human 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 opened the doors of heaven for us all.

Truly this is the Good News – AMEN.

The Coming of the Light: The Holy Gospel according to Saint John 1:1-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The Gospel of our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The World Didn’t End!?!

By nature – I am a planner and a list maker. Oh – how I love a good list! Organizing things and cleaning make me happy. I keep calendars. I do not procrastinate. I am pretty neat and tidy. I delight in routine. I prefer to be prepared. Preparing is actually my happy place!

I am not a huge fan of surprises. (Jason knows a surprise birthday party [for me] or a surprise trip to someplace exotic would so totally NOT be my thing. I would STRONGLY prefer to be in on the planning and the decision making for such things. Okay – I would NEED to be in on all of that!!!)

In spite of this tendency to be just a teeny-tiny bit tightly wound – I learned long ago I needed to accept that life is full of twists and turns and all of sorts surprises. So – so – so many twists and turns and so many crazy surprises!?!?!?!

The single biggest surprise of my life arrived at 4:44 pm on December 21, 2012, and weighed just over 8 pounds.

This surprise came into our lives on the first day of winter and on the last day of the 5,126 year-long cycle of the Mayan calendar. Some folks thought December 21, 2012, might just be the END OF THE WORLD. It was being bantered about in some circles as the Mayan Apocalypse. Seriously – it was a real thing. Some folks were saying there would be a cataclysmic natural disaster like a massive volcanic eruption or an earthquake like we had never seen before or even a gigantic tsunami.

Others thought Planet “X” was finally going to reveal itself to us causing a gigantic black hole to develop which would make our entire solar system disappear into nothingness immediately!

None of these things happened. The world did not end – thankfully. BUT my world was turned upside down and inside out on December 21, 2012, by a very small – very noisy – very demanding surprise.

We named this particular surprise William Andrew! And yes – we were well aware this surprise was on the way long before December 21, 2012. . .

William may make the occasional mess or 800. And our sweet Will is one stubborn dude (he gets that from Jason – of course) – but he is not a wreaker of havoc or a harbinger of doom.

Rather our youngest son is a joy bearer and laughter machine! He is intense – wow – is he intense!?!?!   He is passionate and kind and chatty and extroverted in a family of proud – card-carrying introverts.

Will McFarland may have been born on the shortest day of the year – but he brings light into our lives.

William McFarland has been teaching me important life lessons from the moment we learned he would be joining our family.

What have you learned from the people in your life? So often we focus on what we old people have to teach our children – but what have the children in your life taught you? How have you grown or been blessed by your own relationships?

Will turned 9 on Tuesday. And our family celebrated in the way William wanted to celebrate.   Will made the plan. Will did the choosing and the thinking of the thinks and we simply executed it to the best of our abilities.

The morning started off with helping out at the church. Will actually likes hanging out at the church.   As a pastor’s kid – Saint Stephen truly is his second home. He and Jack helped me get ready for Christmas Eve. There were candles to count and prep. Worship booklets and communion needed to be placed on the chairs.   Ladders were climbed and then stowed safely away. The vacuum was run in the offices and cobwebs were attacked. There were errands to take care of around the building and countless things to do. The McFarland men and I were busy and happy and excited. Christmas is coming and it was Will’s birthday!!!!!!!!!

Next up was a trip to the model train store during Jason’s lunch break.   Will is in a “train phase” these days. And now our boy is the proud engineer of his very own “N” scale model train.   He is in love! Will and his train have been spending A LOT of time together.

And Will’s birthday party was all of his own planning and choosing and coordinating too. He invited Caitlyn – Jack – his dad – and me. (Will has clearly adapted to Covid-19 protocols better than some folks!)

First -Will opened his presents. He liked Caitlyn’s gift the best! She presented him with the board game CLUE!

He chose the menu. We dined on sushi.

Then we played CLUE! What a totally awesome game. It is so much fun. We played again last night and plan to play again every evening for the rest of our lives . . . (Caitlyn won the first round and Jack won last night.)

Then we sang the Happy Birthday song to our boy and devoured our desserts.

Meet Will and Jack’s friend Caitlyn!

Life is full of surprises. So far – my favorite surprise wears orange most days and inherited his dad’s hazel eyes. (Jack was so totally part of my 10-year plan almost 20 years ago now!)

What are your greatest blessings and favorite surprises?

Merry Almost Christmas!

 

 

 

The Questioners and the Clergyperson

I love to read. I enjoy studying. (Point of clarity – I enjoy studying certain subjects – but NOT math. Definitely not math! Math is SO absolutely – positively NOT my thing).   I delight in learning new things and uncovering and discovering and exploring. I have an inquiring mind. I have always found “thinking BIG thinks” – as Will used to call it when he was little – exhilarating.

Learning is fun!

Teaching Sunday school is a delight and a joy. I enjoy all of the time I spend preparing to teach. The research is fun. (I do quite a bit. I need to be prepared for the questions that folks like Pat Markley and Marilyn Mills are going to ask!?!?!?! Seriously – those 2 take no prisoners . . .) The studying and the reading are a treat to be savored.

I am thankful I enjoy this part of being a pastor – because I am constantly being asked questions I don’t know the answers to. Or sometimes I can’t remember the answer to . . . I have been out of seminary 20 years now.   Things start to fade. Many – many – many things are starting to drift from my memory.   (ALL of my Ancient Greek major from undergrad is long gone! So – so – so gone . . . Humiliatingly gone . . . Far – far – far away . . .)

Anyway – I love learning and researching. But no matter how much reading and thinking and researching and pondering I do – folks always – Always – ALWAYS – seem to ask at least one question I can’t answer.

So – long ago I made it my pastor-y policy to declare (with sincerity) – “I don’t know – but I will try to find out!” Although sometimes/okay really – really – really often I may suggest that folks “just ask Jason.” Because my beloved is a walking – breathing Google search/encyclopedia!

And I do try to find out. I write down on my to do list for the week – “Research the meaning of life for Pat Markley (again).” Sometimes/often I ask Jason. Other times I dig into my Bible commentaries.

Last Sunday – during the announcements – as I wrapped up – as I always do – I asked if anyone else had an announcement. And much to my sorrow and dismay and knee-knocking terror – a little – 8-year-old hand in the front pew shot into the air.

“No – not Will!” – I thought to myself. “I can’t call on Will during the announcements.   What will my youngest son announce to the ENTIRE Saint Stephen congregation?!?!?”

But I couldn’t ignore William either. To ignore Will would be to treat him as less than someone else in our Christian community. Will is a member of Saint Stephen. He deserves to be seen and heard too. This “treating children as equals” has been my policy with others’ children my entire ministry and now I needed to apply it much closer to home! (What an idiotic policy. Maybe – I should look into amending that particular policy – ASAP . . .)

Also – Will knew I had seen him. Jack knew I had seen his brother. I knew I had seen my son and the Triune God we worship knew I had seen him!   There was no getting out of it – I had to ask William Andrew McFarland what he wanted to share with Saint Stephen Lutheran Church . . . Holy bananas this could be very – very – very interesting!?!?!?!?!

But first – I prayed. Just a quick – popcorn prayer that I would still have a job when the littlest McFarland was done with his announcement . . . Christmas would be such a terribly stressful time to need to start working in retail . . . And I stink at math . . . (Just ask Pat Markley or Jason or Buddy Zimmerman or William or our kitten for that matter!)

After my prayer – I felt strong enough to face the challenge of entering the lions’ den/fiery furnace that was calling on Will McFarland to share his announcement.

And . . . William simply and sweetly inquired of his pastor/mom – “What’s a poinsettia?”

Honestly – I think I may have heard an angel chorus! No lengthy treatises about trains (his current obsession). No declarations that the sermon was too long or that his birthday was coming just a few days before Christmas, and everyone should come to our house for a party! (Please don’t – because Covid-19 and well – I don’t have time to get ready for house guests this time of year. I am too busy writing long rambling blog posts and boring sermons!) No family secrets revealed (not that we have any of those – of course)! No tales told. Nothing embarrassing or humbling or odd. Just an innocent question from an inquiring little 8-year-old mind.

“What’s a poinsettia?”

“A poinsettia is a red flower we decorate with at Christmas” – I told my sweet boy.

Thankfully – Rod Firquin had already delivered our annual allotment of poinsettias to the church – so I was able to show Will an honest to goodness poinsettia following worship.

But I know my child – Will wanted to know more.   He is the offspring of Jason and Kerri McFarland after all!   Will wanted to know the why?   Why do we make such a big deal about poinsettias this time of year? Why was his mom making announcements in church about these things called poinsettias and why did Mr. Rod order 20 of them?

And then – because I couldn’t quite remember the legend of the poinsettia – I did a little refresher research.

The Legend of the Poinsettia

About two hundred years ago poinsettias became a part our Christmas celebrations here in the United States.

The poinsettia comes to us from Mexico. In Mexico – the story goes like this: The Bethlehem star shone over the manger where Jesus was born. Its light was so bright and beautiful that the earth responded and mirrored that starlight with a beautiful flower. The flower was star shaped with pure white petals and golden star centers.   The people of Mexico called this flower “the Flower of the Holy Night.”

The poinsettia grew to remind people of the night Jesus was born.

Then came the tragic day when Jesus died on the cross and the blossoms changed forever. The pure white petals turned red to remind us of Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.

So – poinsettias can be more than a cheery – red flower. Poinsettias can remind us of God’s love – grace – and mercy.

Merry Almost Christmas!

Worship for Sunday, December 19, 2021

Micah 5:2-5

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

The Word of the Lord.

Luke 1:46b-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
you, the Almighty, have done great things for me
and holy is your name.
       You have mercy on those who fear you,
from generation to generation. 
You have shown strength with your arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
to remember the promise of mercy,
the promise made to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children forever. 

Hebrews 10:5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.”

Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The Word of the Lord.

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 1:39-44

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

The Gospel of our Lord.

“Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”

John Wade was a Roman Catholic priest caught in the middle of a war over religion. In 1745 strife between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church was horrible.   Catholics and Protestants were literally killing one another in God’s name -forcing John Wade to flee to France to avoid persecution by the British government and King George II.

Once Wade arrived in France – he was given the task of researching and identifying historical church music so it could be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Wade worked tirelessly to save as much music as possible. During his lifetime Wade discovered and reclaimed many old – sacred works of music.

Wade’s work also inspired him to write new hymns himself. In 1750, Wade finished writing his most famous tune, “Adeste Fideles” which translates to – “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”

Because Wade spent most of his life uncovering lost music – people simply assumed this hymn too had an older origin. It was not until the 1940’s that Wade received credit for writing “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”

“Good Christian Men (Friends), Rejoice”

Heinrich Suso was born in 1295 – the son of a prosperous German noble family. This was a truly difficult time in world history – but his family’s wealth sheltered young Suso from a world filled with poverty – disease – and despair. And thanks to his parents’ wealth – Suso received a wonderful education.

Eventually Suso felt called to serve God as a Dominican monk.

If Suso had behaved himself and quietly served our Lord as a parish priest he might never have been heard from again. But in 1326 Suso wrote the “Little Book of Truth.”   Suso’s book upset some very important people. In his book – Suso encouraged folks to interpret the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that would bring hope and compassion to regular folks (like us).

Rather than lauding him as a man who truly understood the radical message of the Gospel – Suso was tried for heresy. In 1329 the Pope branded Suso a heretic and condemned him to death.   Eventually the German king spared Suso’s life and exiled him to Switzerland.

One night, Suso had a vivid dream filled with dancing – singing angels. When Suso awoke he quickly recorded “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”

At the time it was written “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” was considered to be a radical hymn.   And it was years before it was widely accepted. Even then it wasn’t accepted by the Catholic church itself. But the German people eventually embraced this hymn with great enthusiasm. In fact – it is said to have been one of Martin Luther’s favorites.

“Silent Night”

In December 1818 a young priest named Joseph Mohr was making the final preparations for the Christmas Eve worship he had been planning for months.   Everything from the music to the sermon was ready. But as he made his final preparations, Mohr encountered a serious problem. The church organ was broken!

Realizing there was nothing he could do – Mohr prayed and asked God to show him a way to bring music to his congregation on this very special night.

Almost as soon as he finished his prayer – Mohr remembered a Christmas poem he had written two years before after a winter’s walk from his grandparents’ farm to the church. His poem was called – “Silent Night! Holy Night!”

That same evening a young schoolteacher named Franz Gruber was home in his drafty apartment over the local school when his friend Joseph Mohr hurried in. After a quick “Merry Christmas” – Mohr quickly explained his problem and then shared his poem with his friend.   “Franz,” he begged, “can you write music to these words that can be easily learned by a choir and played on a guitar?”

A few hours later the two friends met at the church. There in a candlelit sanctuary, Gruber shared his new music with Mohr. The young priest was thrilled with his friend’s inspired work. And they quickly shared the music with the waiting church choir.

Just after midnight – these two friends introduced their simple – yet beautiful song to their congregation. They could never have guessed that “Silent Night” would be sung by millions of Christians each Christmas season.

“Joy to the World!”

Two songwriters – who never met – created one of Christmas’s most beloved carols.

Isaac Watts was born in 1674, in Southampton, England. His father (also named Isaac) was a revolutionary Protestant church leader. At the time of his son’s birth the elder Watts was in prison. He had been convicted of teaching radical ideas that were not approved by the Church of England. At a very early age it was clear that the son was a lot like his free-thinking father.

Like lots of young people – Watts complained that the church music of his day was uninspired – monotonous and boring. So – his father challenged him to stop complaining and come up with something better. This challenge resulted in Isaac Watts composing more that 600 hymns!

For a while – most of his work was met with contempt and disdain.   Some even viewed young Isaac Watts as a heretic and as the tool of the devil. But Watts refused to give up.

Eventually through his hymns and theological writings – Watts became one of the best-known clergymen in England. Some loved him and some hated him – but most people living in England at the time had an opinion about him!

While studying Psalm 98 Watts was inspired to write his most famous hymn – “Joy to the World.” But it never caught on during his lifetime. And in 1748 when Watts died – few people had heard of the carol “Joy to the World.”

In 1792 Lowell Mason was born in New Jersey. Even though it was clear he was musically gifted from a young age – Mason did not see a way to make a living as a musician. So – in 1812 – he moved to Savannah, Georgia to become a banker. But he loved music and continued to study music in his spare time.

Eventually he wrote a book of music that had been inspired by the classical composer Handel and sent it to a Boston publisher. But his hard work was quickly rejected because people didn’t want classical music anymore. They wanted something new and different.

Mason decided to focus his talents on his work as a Sunday school teacher and organist. So – you can imagine his surprise when in – 1827 – he learned that his music had finally found a publisher, and that the Handel Society of Massachusetts had ordered 50,000 copies of his songbook.

He soon moved to Boston. For the next 20 years Mason was a trend setter in the world of music who was constantly battling the establishment with his revolutionary ideas.

In his 1839 songbook entitled Modern Psalmist, Mason finally linked Watt’s psalm-inspired lyrics to his own tune. And Americans quickly embraced “Joy to the World!” as a Christmas carol. Soon Christians all over the world were singing this joyful song as a part of their Christmas celebrations too.

Glitter – Gold – Gilding and Gab

These 2 guys keep Mr. Sean and Ms. Marilyn hopping!

Saint Stephen Lutheran Church was a happening place this weekend.   Christmas was in the air.   Holiday cheer abounded.   In fact – there was so much Christmas spirit flowing and blowing – we couldn’t contain it to just one activity or even to one day!

AWESOME jingle bell necklace Pat. He made it himself!!!!

This past weekend – it wasn’t just Saturday evening when the joys of the Christmas season could be experienced at Saint Stephen. We were rather Christmas-y on Sunday too. In fact – some of us participated in not one but TWO Christmas activities on Sunday morning in addition to worshipping our Lord!

We kicked off Sunday’s Christmas-y festivities with a Christmas crafting extravaganza.

OOOOOOHHHHHH! Inspiration!

Oh – how I love a good crafting session or 8,000. No day is complete (for me) unless I make something.   I am always ready and willing to do a spot of making – crafting – or creating.

That’s Amazing Grace! (Sorry – I couldn’t help myself . . . )

As I write this my knitting sits next to me. My current knitting project is my constant companion – “just in case.” I always – Always – ALWAYS have emergency knitting with me just in case I need to do a spot of knitting. I write blog posts with knitting. I hike with knitting. I grocery shop with knitting. I go to ALL appointments with knitting. I read and knit. Making and being creative is a way of life for me. I am never – ever bored – because I can always knit or plan and plot my next creative endeavor!

Sisters crafting!

And I love sharing (evangelizing) about the joys and delights of being creative. Not as much as I enjoy evangelizing about God’s love – grace and mercy – but A LOT!   It is simply amazing to be able to share how much fun being creative can be with others.

Father and son crafting!

It is so much fun to assemble a table FULL of craft supplies and then to invite some folks to dig in and have fun and get creative! And that is exactly what happened on Sunday morning.

And WOW – did the creativity flow! I merely supplied the craft supplies and a few ideas and thoughts on what folks might do with some of the supplies. BUT the Lutherans supplied the creativity and the imagination and the laughter and the conversation and the chatter and the inventiveness and the total genius!

Besties crafting!

I was dazzled and delighted and amazed and thrilled by what my sisters and brothers in Christ created. It was seriously cool to see what folks came up with. There were so many awesome – unique creations. No one made the exact same thing. No one approached his or her project in the same way.   Everyone had their own take on what to do with the supplies.

Grandma and granddaughter crafting!

There was a dazzling variety of Christmas creations when all was said and done. Saint Stephen is blessed with some seriously gifted and talented folks. Artists abound. Creativity flows. All folks need are a few supplies and the time and the freedom to create and amazingly wonderful creations are created!

Brothers crafting!

I love watching makers make and creators create and artists do their thing!

More Lutherans busily crafting!

Creativity is truly a joy and a blessing and a gift to be a part of and to witness.

A church secretary busy making a gorgeous Christmas garland!

And following worship – the joys and blessings of Christmas continued to flow for those folks who stayed to help decorate Saint Stephen for Christmas. (Sorry but – elves – fairies – and pixies – do NOT decorate our church for Christmas each year. A dozen or so faithful – dedicated Lutherans do!)

The Christmas trees came out of the storage closets. The ladders were hauled out too. The hoisting and piecing together and plugging in began.

Fingers were crossed and silent prayers were said that the lights would work again this year and that no one would descend any ladders too quickly!

Once the Christmas tree puzzles were solved – the tree fluffing commenced in earnest. The fluffy – fluffing always taking a while. Christmas trees don’t take kindly to being shoved in a box or into a storage closet for 11 months of the year. It is funny how all trees (even artificial ones) need room to spread their branches and breathe!

Finally – the ornaments were unboxed. The hangers were located. The trees were adorned with their golden decor of balls and the names for our God (Emmanuel – Savior – King of Kings – Lord of Lords – Jesus). The fragile Chrismons made their annual appearance too. Crosses – a phoenix – a crown.   Circles and a snake!

The candles were placed in the windows and hung in the windows.   They are ready to light up the nighttime darkness and to remind us that Jesus is truly the Light of the World.

There was much chatter and chatting and even some shouting (but not angrily – just trying to locate a misplaced Lutheran or two who had wandered off).   There was laughter and joy and fellowship too. We joked and teased and enjoyed the great blessing of each other’s company.

I give our Lord thanks for the blessing of this Christian community. I give thanks for friendship and fellowship and chatter and conversation and communion and laughter and JOY. I give thanks for those folks who show up and help out – again and again and again!   I give thanks that I don’t have to do this alone!

Baked Beans – TP – Laughter – and Lutherans

This past Saturday evening was filled to the brim with Christmas cheer – holiday hoopla – Advent awesomeness – and just plain fun at Saint Stephen.

Ages ago – back when the sun was still shining for longer than 4 hours a day. Back when the weather was still to my liking (as in – the temperatures were still nice and toasty – warm/blazing hot) we had a delightfully fun – grown-up gathering at Saint Stephen. We laughed.   We played jumbo Jenga. We ate yummy food. We chatted and chattered and conversed. We laughed A LOT. We ate some more yummy food and played another round of jumbo Jenga while laughing even more!

Simply put – we had a delightfully wonderful evening with our sisters and brothers in Christ. It was fun.   It was joyful and just what many of us needed and continue to need. Community – caring – kindness – grace – joy – friendship – laughter – welcome. Balm for world-weary souls.

We declared – “this was fun!” “We need to do this again!” And “we need to do this more often!”

So – the pastor (that would be me) and the chairperson of the Fellowship Committee (that would be Marilyn Mills) decided on a date for another “low-key gathering of the Saint Stephen community.” A time to relax and have fun and simply delight in the joys and blessings of Christian community.

But what would we do? We probably shouldn’t play jumbo Jenga every single time we get together. Unless we decide to start a competitive league.   (Although – that might be an idea . . .   I like the sound of that!)

So – I thought some thinks and then I declared “Bingo” – we will play “Bingo!”

My family has been playing a rousing game of Christmas Day Bingo for decades now. Bingo is a McFarland family tradition. We love it.

Bingo is one of those games that is fun no matter how many people are there. 10 people – cool. 15 – people awesome. 20 – even better! And (most importantly) Bingo allows for lots of talking and laughter and the swapping of stories and the telling of jokes and the eating of desserts/leftovers/candy.

The prizes are important too. We always have seriously awesome prizes. Prizes that are coveted and delighted in. Prizes that make the winner giggle with glee and their cousins/Uncle/Papa green with envy! And we have ridiculously funny prizes too. Prizes chosen to make everyone in the family roar with laughter! All of the prizes are wrapped with care. You never know if you are choosing your favorite candy or a can of baked beans. Or if my father-in-law is going to get a t-shirt declaring that he “lives to knit!” We do lots of bartering and swapping of Bingo prizes.

We laugh so much. We talk and tease and swap prizes and laugh some more. Often the 2 hours we spend laughing and playing Bingo together are the highlight of our Christmas gathering. It isn’t the game or the loot we win – it is the memories we make!

Yes – Bingo would be perfectly – perfect for a fun gathering of the Lutherans – I thought. And it was.   (In my – not so humble opinion anyway . . .)

I had fun from the beginning to the end.

I loved shopping for the prizes. I literally spent weeks (months) looking for prizes that would make the cut. Some of the prizes were symbolic of our Covid-19 journey – hand sanitizer – hand soap – bags of spilt peas – and rolls of TP. (Remember when the store shelves were empty of all of those things for weeks on end?)

Chocolate and chips – just because those are very – very yummy!

Baked beans and trash bags for a laugh. The same goes for the Christmas cactus ornament wearing twinkle lights and a cowboy hat . . . (what on Earth was the designer thinking?!?!?)

The laughter flowed. We joked and teased and laughed some more. We talked and chatted and chattered. Then we laughed even more.

It was decided by some members of the congregation (Barry Mills) that the resident clergy person/Bingo caller should stick to leading Bible studies and preaching sermons. (There is always – Always – ALWAYS a critic in EVERY group.)   He even suggested some replacements . . . Seriously . . . replacements . . . I am so totally irreplaceable. Or at least that’s my story and I am sticking to it!!!!!

We had so much fun that it was decided we would most definitely need to reuse our special Christmas Bingo cards again this summer. We can all celebrate Christmas in July together by playing Christmas in July Bingo! (I am already on the hunt for great prizes!)

I give our Lord thanks for the gift and blessing of sisters and brothers in Christ. For the blessing of community and laughter and joy in a sometimes difficult world.   I give thanks for the opportunity to just be for a while. To relax and slow down and celebrate friendship and fellowship.

I give thanks for silliness and moments of joy and for Bingo on a chilly Saturday evening in December.

I give thanks for Saint Stephen Lutheran Church and for the blessings being the pastor of this truly intriguing crew brings to my life.

Worship for Sunday, December 12, 2021

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

The Word of the Lord.

Isaiah 12:2-6

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on God’s name;
make known the deeds of the Lord among the nations; proclaim that this name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. 

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The Word of the Lord.

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”’

As the people wrre filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The Gospel of our Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This morning we are going to be learning a bit more about some of the decorations we use to decorate our sanctuary during Advent and Christmas each year.

We see Christmas trees almost everywhere we go this time of year.

We can’t seem to agree on much these days – but apparently – we can agree on the awesomeness of Christmas trees. 94 million American households will put up and decorate at least one Christmas tree this year. That’s about 79 percent of us!

We find Christmas trees outside and inside. We see trees covered in twinkle lights – living trees – artificial trees and puffy – inflatable trees dancing in yards.

We don’t know the exact origins of the Christmas tree but there is a cool legend of the very first Christmas tree.

It is said that in the 7th century a zealous – young – English missionary was the very first person to use the evergreen tree as a symbol for the triune God. Winfrid – who later become known as Saint Boniface – used the evergreen tree as an object lesson. He taught that each point on the triangular-shaped tree represented a different Person of the Holy Trinity – God the Father – the Son the and the Holy Spirit.

Another legend says that one day Winfrid came upon a group of men offering a sacrifice to an oak tree as an act of pagan worship. Winfrid was so infuriated by this idolatry that he felled the oak tree with one mighty blow of his ax.

According to this legend – a fir tree grew from the stump of the oak.   Struck by this miraculous event – Winfred proclaimed that the tiny new fir tree represented Jesus’ victory over death on the cross and gift of eternal life given to us by our Savior

Have you ever noticed the way your Christmas tree points toward heaven?   Just as Jesus did with his words and his actions – drawing our attention to God who loves us all.

At Saint Stephen we have been decorating our Christmas trees with special Christmas ornaments called Chrismons for years.

Chrismons are special Christmas decorations – filled with symbolism and meaning. The word “chrismon” comes from combining the two words – monogram and Christ. So – the word chrismon literally means – Christ’s monogram.

Each chrismon tells a unique story – truth or lesson about our Christian faith in the symbols it includes.

The crown tops our Christmas tree each year. The crown reminds us Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus is the long awaited – much anticipated descendant of King David who saves us from our sins and conquers death for us through his innocent death on the cross.

Each summer roses bloom in front of Saint Stephen and each December we hang a rose in a golden circle on our Christmas tree.

The circle reminds us that our God is eternal – with no beginning and no end. The circle also reminds us of the gift and blessing of eternal life we receive from Jesus’ innocent death on the cross and his resurrection 3 days later.

The rose reminds us of God’s promise to the exiled people of Israel (and to us) in Isaiah 35:1 – “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose.”

The rose is also a symbol that is often used to represent Jesus’ mother Mary.

The IHS or in Greek – The Iota Eta Sigma on a Latin Cross

The iota – eta – and sigma (IHS) are the first 3 letters in the Greek spelling of the name Jesus. When these 3 letters are placed on a cross – they remind us Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.

The Ichthus or The Stylized Fish

Ichthus comes from a Greek word meaning fish. An ichthus is a stylized fish.

Early Christians used the ichthus as an easily made/quickly drawn and easily recognized secret sign.   During times of persecution and oppression Christians could find one another by using this simple password.   To outsiders – the ichthus just looked like a decoration – but to Christians it was an affirmation and declaration of their Christian faith.

It is also what is called an acrostic in which the Greek letters are the initials of the word’s meaning Jesus Christ Son of God – Savior. (This makes way more sense if you read ancient Greek. So – feel free to chat with Jason about it in Sunday school next week!)

The Phoenix

The Phoenix isn’t just for Harry Potter and his friends!   Christians have been using the phoenix for centuries to tell important truths about our faith.

The phoenix is said to have been an eagle-like bird from the Middle East with beautiful red and gold feathers. Only one phoenix ever exists at the same time.

Every 500 years – as the phoenix feels its life drawing to a close – it builds a nest of frankincense – myrrh – and other sweet-smelling woods.   Then as it dies – the sun sets the phoenix’s nest on fire and the phoenix is consumed in the flames. 3 days later – the phoenix rises again from the ashes – restored to health and youth – ready to live out another 500 years.

As a Christian symbol the phoenix represents the resurrection to eternal life.

The Serpent on the Tau Cross

God the Father saved the People of Israel from a plague of snakes during the Exodus (which they brought on themselves as a punishment for their sins) when he gave Moses a staff with a bronze serpent on it. Whenever one of the Chosen People was bitten by a serpent all they had to do to be healed was to look at the bronze serpent.

The serpent reminds us of the healing we too can find in God when we turn to him.

This cross is called the “tau” cross because it resembles the Greek letter tau. The cross reminds us of the glorious gift of salvation we have been promised by our Lord.

The Triquetra and the Circle

(Triquetra was a new word for me.) A triquetra is a triangular shape made up of 3 interlaced arcs.   Each of the arcs is equal in size.   This reminds of us of the Holy Trinity – God the Father – Son – and Holy Spirit.

The endless circle the triquetra rests in reminds us of eternal life.

The Passion Cross

The Passion Cross is also known as the Cross of Suffering. The pointed ends of this cross remind us of the points of the nails that were used to crucify Jesus. The points also remind us of the sharp points of the spear that pierced Jesus’ side and the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head. (The Gospel of John 19).

As you can see – in just one simple looking Christmas decoration – there can be so much meaning! I hope you are able to see our Christmas decorations at Saint Stephen with new eyes now that you know just a bit more about what they mean and the story they are telling us.

Glue – Grace – and Good Times

I still have a few precious – stubborn flowers blooming in my flowerbeds.

Last Saturday was the first Saturday in December. And Mother Nature gave us an early Christmas present in the form of a perfectly – perfect day. The sun was shining, and the temperatures were balmy and warm. It was one of those days that gives my summer loving soul hope that I might just survive another late fall and winter! (Every single year – I seriously wonder if the long – dark nights of winter will actually steal my soul this year . . .)

Saturday was truly lovely and glorious. Absolutely – positively glorious.

So perfect – it was easy to forget it was December and Christmas was mere weeks away.

It is incredibly dangerous for clergy to let their guard down for even a moment during the entirety of Advent. Clergy cannot – MUST NOT – forget Christmas is breathing down their necks! Letting one’s guard down only leads to forgetting something incredibly important like preparing the Christmas Eve worship booklets or organizing the church decorating or what date Christmas is on anyway . . . (I think Christmas is on the 25th this year. BUT I should probably double-check that on my calendar. I get a bit stress-y stressed during December.   Some/lots/most of us pastor-types do.)

Anyway – the weather outside on Saturday was most definitely not frightful. In fact – the weather was just plain delightful!

Thank you little burst of color.

Jason – Will – and I spent our morning outside. Actually – Will spent his entire day outside playing with his two besties. They didn’t come inside until the sun started to set Saturday evening. Such brilliant children . . . They enjoyed every moment the warm – sunny December day had to offer them.

But I couldn’t stay outside – because I had other plans for fun and joy and merry making. I too was going to hang out with some of my friends! I was off to “the Church” (as we say at our house) for the Ladies’ Christmas Tea.

Honestly – I wasn’t feeling particularly Christmas-y on Saturday – but I am almost always game for hanging out with some of my Lutheran sisters in Christ. (I am almost always game to hang out with my Lutheran brothers in Christ too. But the guys just don’t usually come to the LADIES‘ Tea.)

But then I walked into the church on Saturday afternoon and Christmas was in the air. Actually, Christmas was everywhere!

The lights were sparkling and twinkling on the Christmas tree in the fellowship hall.

Marilyn had Christmas music playing. Although I did strongly object to Frank Sinatra belting out “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” in a church fellowship hall. No one should be threatening anyone in a church or using four letter words. I expressed these thoughts and STRONG objections to Marilyn who is on the Saint Stephen Church Council and she dared to laugh in my face! Seriously – Marilyn laughed at me – smiled and did a little dance!!!

Clearly – some people around Saint Stephen have no respect for the Master’s  of Divinity I spent 4 long grueling- years earning in MINNESOTA!?!?!?   Perhaps I should start demanding that she call me Rev. McFarland. That sounds far more authoritarian and bossy – doesn’t it? But people called Rev. McFarland are probably very – very serious and stuffy and use far fewer exclamation points in their writing . . .   And I do not aspire to that.

Anyway – other than that one very objectionable musical selection – it was a whole bunch of Christmas awesomeness at Saint Stephen on Saturday afternoon. There was Christmas colored Jello (yum!). There were Christmas cookies. There were Christmas scarves and Christmas sweaters and Christmas pins and Christmas tops. Christmas decorations and Christmas greetings.

There were Lutheran ladies filled with Christmas cheer! There was conversation. There was tons and tons of laughter. There were smiles. There was happiness and delight and joy and fun.

There was even an adorably cute Christmas craft with glue that some of us rocked like rock stars. And others – well – others – well – let’s just say that glue is not our preferred artistic medium . . . God gives us all gifts and talents – but some of us were skipped over on “glue day.” I have always done far better with tape and yarn . . . Fiber and beads are my artistic media of choice.

Saturday afternoon was such a delightful blessing. It was so wonderful to be able to spend time with my sisters in Christ celebrating the joys of the season and community and creativity.

I give our Lord thanks for my sisters in Christ – for this Christmas season – for laughter – conversation – joy and even for glue! These are the things that hold us together in this wild – weird – and sometimes wonderful world we are all living in.

Merry – almost Christmas!

Worship for Sunday, December 5, 2021

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.  Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

The Word of the Lord.

Luke 1:68-79

Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel,
you have come to your people and set them free.
You have raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of your servant David.
Through your holy prophets, you promised of old to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our forebears,
and to remember your holy covenant.
This was the oath you swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship you without fear,
holy and righteous before you, all the days of our life. 

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
to give God’s people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

The Word of the Lord.

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The Gospel of our Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you – but I absolutely – positively I love getting ready for things. I like nothing more than to plan and to plot and to prepare. I delight in making lists and checking them twice.

I honestly enjoy things like packing for vacation – because as I pack my mind is busy thinking about the joy of spending tons of time with the people I love most in the world. While I find the water shoes and load the backpacks and gather our hiking shoes – I think of all of the fun we will hopefully have together. I look forward to reading and to hiking mountain trails and to knitting and simply to spending time with my wild – wonderful and slightly weird family.

As I pack – I wonder what strange or bizarre events will unfold during our time away. Because something strange and totally unexpected always seems to happen. What stories we will tell. What joys will come our way. What twists and turns are ahead of us.

Told you we were odd. We spent Boxing Day last year picking up other folks trash.

I anticipate our adventures and our misadventures too.

I spend days – often weeks preparing for these trips. Not because I need to. I could absolutely get our family out the door with the essentials for a week away in less than an hour. Rather – I prepare so much because I find the thinking and the plotting and the planning and the anticipating to be just plain delightful.   Because I love it and it fills me with joy!

In fact – I find at least 50% of the joy in just about anything fun is in the anticipation. Whether it is a vacation – enjoying a special holiday celebration – my first sip of morning coffee – or cuddling up under a cozy blanket at the end of a cold winter’s day.

Scientists call this anticipatory joy. And I am guessing you have all known its delights too.

Anticipating things is fun. Or it can be anyway . . .

If we don’t get carried away and start to ruin the joy with ridiculous amounts of stress.

Sunset in the mountains fills me with anticipatory joy! What fills you with joy?

Which I think so many of us tend to do this time of year. We take a seriously awesome thing like celebrating Christmas too far and we end up making a great big stressful mess of it for ourselves and everyone else in our lives.

Anticipating our Savior’s birth should be fun and exciting.   Preparing for Christmas should be awesome and joyful. But far too many of us make it stressful.

We rob ourselves of the anticipatory joy that could be ours!   All because we put an absolutely ridiculous amount of pressure on ourselves.

We send Christmas cards to everyone we have ever met. Including the girl who sat next to us in high school Chemistry class and to Barbara who is our 3rd cousin 27 times removed on our step-dad’s side of the family.

We insist on baking 47 kinds of cookies from scratch. Even though 7 kinds would make everyone just as happy or even happier!

We have convinced ourselves we need to purchase Christmas presents for everyone in our lives. Even if we can’t afford it. Even if our credit card bills in January will make us ugly-cry (AGAIN this year)! Even if no one in our lives needs more stuff. . .

And then we insist on wrapping these same presents just like the cool lady on Pintrest does. Even though we end up weeping into our hot cocoa or our bourbon at midnight with tape in our hair – glitter on our teeth and absolutely NO Christmas cheer. And the children take to avoiding us because Mom gets “really mean” in December . . .

And then – John the Baptist dares to march into our stressed out – filled up – shockingly busy lives and boldly declares we need to “Prepare the way of the Lord!?!?”

Oh great – what does that mean? Is it hard? Will it be stressful? Where will THAT fit in the schedule? How exactly does that work?

Thankfully when John the Baptist comes to us this week and tells us we need to prepare the way of the Lord – he isn’t talking about wrapping presents or baking cookies.   He doesn’t want us to run the vacuum or to water the Christmas tree. Rather he wants us to prepare our hearts for the coming of our Savior.

John the Baptist asks all of us this week – is your heart as ready for Jesus’ arrival as your house is? Have you spent any time preparing yourself spiritually for Christmas this year?   Or have all of your preparations been focused on presents and cookies and cards? Have you gotten a bit distracted by “all the things” again this year?

For most of us these questions cause us to pause and reflect.   Because we know we have spent way more time writing cards, baking cookies, and wrapping presents than we have spent preparing our hearts for Jesus’ arrival.

It is so very easy to get so wrapped up in our preparations for Christmas that we forget who we are preparing for.

But the good news is we still have plenty of time to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ arrival.

John the Baptist tells us we only need to do one thing to prepare our hearts and souls for Christmas – and that is repent. But what is repentance?

Repentance – isn’t really a word we use all that much in our daily lives. Well – repentance is about facing up to the truth – that we are all sinners who fail to obey God. That we sin and make a mess of things.

Repentance means acknowledging we clutter our lives with all sorts of stuff that keeps Jesus from being the center of our lives.   Repentance means taking an honest look at your life and admitting you need God’s help – that you need God’s grace and mercy. Repentance means admitting we really do need a Savior. That no matter what we do – we can’t save ourselves.

This is a wonderful time of year. So bake your favorite cookies – decorate your Christmas trees –and wrap those presents!

But just don’t forget whose birthday you are preparing for!   Don’t forget you are getting ready for Jesus.

Because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and God’s amazing grace, love, and mercy really are the reason we celebrate this glorious season.   AMEN.