Sermon – December 20, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyJoy?

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“…the moment I heard the sound of your greeting reach my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed what our God said to her, what was spoken to her would be fulfilled, would be accomplished.” — Luke 1:44-45.

I think most of you know I came to Norwich from the great State of Maine. So I know Maine. And I’d like to briefly address the size and demographics of the state.

First, Maine is the largest New England State. The rest of the New England States— Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut can fit inside Maine. For all that land, it has only 1,300,000 residents. Maine is a rural state.

The Waldo County Cooperative of Churches, where I served as a part time pastor, was spread out over 40 miles. And the five towns in the co-op have less than 3,000 people all together. You could travel 10 or 15 minutes by car on the road from one of these towns to another and not see a house. It may feel rural in the Norwich area but not as rural as that.

I mention all this because, despite being in a small, rural state, Bangor Seminary, in Bangor, Maine, where I attended, had one of the outstanding New Testament scholars in the world on its staff. And I had the privileged of sitting in the classroom listening to this scholar— the Rev. Dr. Burton Throckmorton— just plain Burt to the students.

Now, I bring up Burt and Maine in the same breath for a couple of reasons. As I said, it was a privilege to learn from a scholar like Burt. He could have taught anywhere, you see— New York, Chicago. He had a world-wide reputation. He chose Bangor.

Further, this is what I mean when I say Burt was a scholar: he would stand in the front of the classroom with the Greek New Testament in his hands and translate it on the fly— just say the English words that were sitting in front of us. Then, occasionally, he would stop and explain why it was nearly impossible to translate a specific word into English, since there was no concurrent meaning in our language.

That brings me to what I think is the most important lesson I learned from Burt. When looking at the passage in 1 Corinthians 15, where it says (quote:) “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received….” Burt told us there was no good English word for underlying Greek of “handed on.”

The closest he could come was a bit of gibberish— understandable gibberish but not good English. He said the word effectively meant not ‘handed on’ but ‘tradition-ed on.’

He then explained what ‘tradition-ed’ might mean. When you get married, he said, odds are you and your spouse have different family traditions about celebrating Christmas. And odds are you grapple with this.

It’s quite likely you wind up taking some traditions from column ‘A’ and some from column ‘B.’ But what you’ve done is made it your own. And making it your own is the point of ‘tradition-ed on.’

But be careful, said Burt. In order to make the tradition of Scripture your own you need to deeply, deeply, deeply understand what the tradition is. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Luke/Acts in the section commonly called Luke: “…the moment I heard the sound of your greeting reach my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her, what was spoken to her would be fulfilled, would be accomplished.” (Slight pause.)

Among American Protestants there was largely no religious celebration of Christmas for our first two hundred years on these shores, the 1600s and the 1700s. There were no such things as Christmas Carols back then.

However, in the early 1800s religious observances slowly become accepted in Protestantism, among Protestants. But secularism crept in nearly right away.

Indeed, an article in the New York Times this week told about the history of secular Christmas traditions in which New York City had a hand. Santa Claus— at least the common way in which the jolly old elf is portrayed today— is a New York invention.

In an 1809 in a short story Washington Irving created a comic version of St. Nicholas based on a Dutch tradition. Clement Moore then wrote An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas in 1823 borrowing from Irving this “portly rubicund Dutchman.” The poem had a massive impact on Christmas gift giving it should be noted. Suffice it to say this figment of 19th Century literature bore no resemblance to the original Saint Nicholas, a Bishop from fourth century Turkey.

Just as a by the way, New York also had one of the first public Christmas tree lightings. But this did not happen until the 20th Century, 1912 to be precise. Before then there were essentially no public Christmas tree lightings anywhere in America. [1]

Here’s my point: what we do not realize, since a certain secular way of observing Christmas has been present for our entire lifetime these are new traditions. Acknowledging that these are new traditions leads me to a question.

Have we taken up the challenge of Paul about making the Christian tradition— not the Christmas tradition but the Christian tradition— our own? Or are we merely passive participants in what are obviously traditions based in the culture. Coming back to the Christmas traditions— for instance, these traditions about Christmas from Santa Claus to Christmas Trees?

Put another way, have we asked ourselves deep questions about Christian traditions around what the birth of the Messiah might mean? Have we asked ourselves not just what is the joy we should consider today, the day on which we celebrate joy. Have we asked ourselves why the child of Elizabeth might leap for joy? (Slight pause.)

When the reading from Luke was introduced, this was said. (Quote:) “Luke writes about not one birth narrative. Luke has a number of stories and two births in the first two chapters, and all of them are important.” (Slight pause.)

What makes these other sections important is the clarity they bring to the birth of the Messiah. How does this section of the First Chapter make the Second Chapter reading more clear?

I think some of the secular, cultural traditions we’ve developed over time get in the way of the real claim being made by Scripture. This is the claim: joy abounds because the proclamation here made is that this is not just a pastoral story of shepherds and the baby. This is the birth of the promised Messiah. And this is why we are joyful. (Slight pause.)

Theologian John Dominic Crossan says the one who leaps in the womb of Elizabeth, John, the one who goes before Jesus preaching, this Baptizer, has it wrong. John preaches that the Dominion of God will happen soon. Jesus, the cousin of John, says, “No, no that’s not quite right.” The Dominion of God is now, right now. And Jesus says we are invited to participate in that Dominion, now— right now.

Why? The Messiah is here— right now. The Messiah is present, is real, now. That’s the reason to be joyful. And we are invited by God to participate in the Dominion, now.

Here’s another way to put it. Jesus insists our lives are not about waiting for a second coming. Jesus insists our lives are about being willing to deal with the present reality of the first coming— Immanuel— God with us. (Slight pause.)

My friend Rebecca Fraser is a college professor and a talented poet. She is fond of writing in haiku, a Japanese style of poetry, often a three-line observation about a fleeting moment. Yesterday she posted this Christmas haiku but it had eight stanzas, not just one. Hence the title of this poem, this haiku, is A Christmas Haiku Times Eight.

Up and on the couch / With coffee at five a. m. / White lights, dark morning.

Slowly a gray sky / Emerges and I savor / The quiet and peace.

Comfortable and so / Uncomfortable knowing / Many are without.

Injustice explodes / Before my eyes when I choose / To see this darkness.

Come Emmanuel / Teach me love and compassion / Outside my safe home.

Show me where to care / And when to reach out a hand, / Present. Eye to eye.

And this is Christmas / Dark and light intermingle / Till light pierces dark.

Hope is born anew / And dreams of old women speak / Truth into worldly lies. [2]

Old women… old women like Elizabeth speak truth. And we— old and young— we are called to speak truth into worldly lies. Perhaps one truth is we fail to acknowledge the real joy of the advent of the Messiah. We fail to acknowledge is the real joy of the advent of the Messiah because we ignore the real truth of the first coming.

We ignore the real truth of the first coming by overlaying it with culturally acceptable practices. And what is the truth of Scripture as opposed to the truth of the culture? God… is… present. (Slight pause.)

Let us, this Christmas, this celebration of the first coming which we call Christmas, fully know the joy and the truth expressed by Scripture: God is with us, now. Let us celebrate the joy of the first coming by dealing with injustice, by dealing with our fears, by dealing with oppression, by dealing with violence.

Let us understand that the first coming means God is at our side on this journey. That is what Christmas is about. Christmas is about, therefore, fully understanding the hope, the peace, the love, the joy of God Who is present and Who is with us. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “Why are Christians invited to celebrate joy on this Sunday? Because the Christ is with us. This is not a statement in the past tense. The Christ is with us and our claim, as Christians, is the transformation of the world began with the birth of the Christ. That transformation is not simply an internal, private, spiritual reality. That transformation is an external, societal, communal process because the Dominion of God is among us. And we are invited to participate in that transformation.”

BENEDICTION: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Go in peace for God is with us. Go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that God is steadfast. Amen.


[2] Used with permission.

Author: admin