The first thing I saw this Christmas morning in our beautiful snow-covered back yard was a large flock of black birds on, around and below one of our bird feeders. I can’t name most of the birds that visit our feeders but these birds were larger and more aggressive toward each other than the smaller, more colorful varieties we normally see. The size and darkness of the blackbirds was amplified by their contrast with the pure white snow. My first thought was to recall an old nursery rhyme that says, “Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie,” but that soon passed since it didn’t sound at all appetizing.
I’m also embarrassed to admit my other first reactions were less than Christ-like. I thought, “Oh, no. I didn’t brave the cold to feed blackbirds!” I was tempted to go to the door and chase them away so the smaller, “prettier” birds could get to the food. And then I stopped. I realized these birds are all creatures of our God, equally deserving of eating “our” food, which of course is not ours at all, but a gift from God that we are able to share.
And then an even more uncomfortable thought emerged in my mind as I asked myself if my aversion to these particular black birds was another example of my latent racist attitudes that I must constantly be on the lookout for. Pretty heavy stuff to look at before I had finished my first cup of coffee, but we can’t choose the times when God knocks on the door of our souls with uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.
But God wasn’t done with me yet. When I perused the morning news on my iPad I found an article about Pope Francis’ Christmas message where he challenged the wealthier nations of the world to share the COVID vaccines with other parts of God’s family that are most vulnerable. Again my first reaction was uncomfortable. I thought, “That’s fine Pope, but not until I get my vaccine!”
How often do we offer to God or others the leftovers from our tables, after we have taken care of our needs first? But the ultimate gift of Christmas is not ours to hoard! The startling message delivered to the shepherds is one we still need to hear today. “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
The Christ child is a gift “for all the people.” And we who celebrate that gift cannot hoard it but are called to “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Please take time today to listen to what the angels are whispering in your ear.
Whom or what do you adore? Be careful; that’s a tricky question. Some dictionaries say that the primary meaning of the word “adore” is “to worship.” And we know that to worship anyone or anything besides God is idolatry. Roman emperors and other egotistical heads of state throughout history have demanded that their people worship them. And when they don’t get the adoration they thing they deserve they take great offense as Herod does in the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. Herod tells the Magi that he wants to know where this new king can be found so he can go and “worship” him. But Herod really wants to do is go and kill Jesus because he feels threatened. Contrast that with what the Magi do when they find Jesus: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:11).
The question that story raises for us today is “To which King do we give our allegiance? Herod or Jesus?” And secondly, “What does it mean to ‘adore’ Jesus?” I believe that Jesus doesn’t want worshippers; He wants disciples who will be his servants in the world. And that brings us to the other definition of “adore” which is the more common usage today. According to Merriam-Webster that other definition is “to regard with loving admiration and devotion.” Our relationship with Jesus should be more like that definition of love and devotion. That devotion requires obedience and striving to live by Christ’s example.
When we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year let’s learn two lessons from the adoring Magi. Let’s honor Jesus by keeping our focus on him, but after Christmas we must stop following the example of the Magi. Here’s how Matthew describes the Magi’s brief encounter with Jesus: “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.” (Matthew 2:11-12).
In other words when the going got tough the Magi’s fear of Herod was stronger than their devotion to Jesus. Yes, we know that Mary and Joseph also flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus, but we also know that when it was safe they came back home and there Jesus fulfilled his mission. That mission of grace and love is still a work in progress, and we are the ones called to turn our adoration at Christmas into the work of spreading God’s love here and now. Come, adore, and then go out to serve!
There is a tradition in United Methodist circles that when we gather for our Annual Conference we begin by singing these words from a Charles Wesley Hymn: “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?” In this pandemic year how we long to see each other’s faces in person and not mediated through zoom, google or Facetime. I suggest that when we are finally able to have in-person worship again we should sing that hymn.
The sadness and trials of 2020 began for me weeks before we ever heard of COVID-19. A dear friend and colleague died in the first week of January in a freak accident where he fell and hit his head on concrete causing a fatal brain bleed. The preacher at the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Bill Casto’s life was another of our mutual friends, Bishop Joe Sprague. The thing that stuck with me most about the Bishop’s sermon was this line: “Where is our brother Bill now? He is where he’s always been—in the heart of God.”
As God’s beloved children that’s where all of us are alive, in the heart of God. God’s gift of eternal life doesn’t start when we die. Eternal means forever – before our souls took on human form and after this life on earth is over, whenever that may be.
As we prepare our hearts during this pandemic Advent being alive is more precious with death or the threat of it all around us. And being alive is more than simply breathing and existing. Being alive for people of faith is more about quality than quantity. It means finding passion and purpose in how we use this day and the life and talent God has given us.
Just as we all live eternally in the heart of God the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas means God came alive as one of us at Bethlehem, but that was not the beginning of Christs’ existence. As the Gospel of John tells us “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 beingin him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness (even of 2020) did not overcome it.” (John 1:2-5)
What makes you feel alive? How can you live more days embracing that feeling? You are God’s beloved child – how do you plan to live up to that birthright?
My prayer for all of us to have a rebirth of joy and purpose is captured for me in these words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” Amen
Our church is centering daily devotions during Advent on a word for each day. Here is what I wrote about the word for today.
We are sailing in very rough waters this Advent that is like none other any of us have experienced. Not often in 2020 have I felt “calm.” Worried, angry, depressed, all of the above! But I haven’t achieved a state of true calmness very often this year. ‘And that’s why Advent in 2020 is so necessary and so relevant. Mary wasn’t calm when the angel told her she would be pregnant with God’s son. And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t calm when Joseph told her they were going to bed down in a stable, or when she went into labor there among the livestock.
As soon as I was asked to write this devotion on the word “Calm” I thought about this story from Mark 4: “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. “
That calming of the sea reminded me of another experience Diana and I had two years ago when we were blessed to be able to visit Australia and New Zealand. The picture here was taken on a sail boat in the bay of Akoroa, New Zealand. The water that day there was perfectly smooth and peaceful, but the calmest part of that excursion was when the captain sailed near the cave in the picture. As we sat there perfectly still he played some recorded organ music. Echoing off the walls of that cave, the music was as awe inspiring as any pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.
That was one of the calmest experiences of my life. But here’s the thing. We don’t have to go clear to New Zealand to be calm. All we have to do is have enough faith to ask Jesus to calm whatever stormy sea we’re in right now—and believe the God of Advent will provide.