A Shepherd Lights the Christ Candle

Good evening. As you can see I make my living as a shepherd and my home is in the fields. Sheep are my business and our lives are pretty routine, even boring at times. But there was one night, much like this one, that I will never forget.

It started out as a normal night. I was watching the stars, one of my favorite pastimes. When suddenly, a light shone all around us, and we felt a, well…a presence. We turned, and there stood an angel! Frankly, it scared us out of our wits!

But the calmness in the angel’s voice quieted our fears as he told us of an incredible event that had just happened over in Bethlehem. The angel told us that our savior had just been born! Christ the Lord! Then he said a very strange thing. He said that we would find the messiah in a cattle stall, lying in, of all things, a manger. Then the sky filled with angels, all of them praising god for this marvelous gift. [Pause] and then they were gone and it was very quiet again.

Our people had been waiting for the messiah for a very long time, and we’ve had a lot of false alarms. But after talking it over, we decided we had to go check this out for ourselves. And, believe it or not, when we got to Bethlehem we found a little family in the stall and quietly approached them. We didn’t want to wake the baby. And there he was…the sweet little baby who would become our King of Kings, our Lord of Lords. The hope of all creation.

After a little while we returned to the fields full of hope and praising god for what we had heard and witnessed firsthand. We had seen the good shepherd who will always lead us back to god when we get off the path. [pause]

And so tonight, I light the Christ candle, to celebrate the gift of God’s son, the light of the world.

[Christmas Eve, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, concluding a series on the “Supporting Cast of Christmas.”

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Mary: 4th Advent Candle

Pastor: On this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we continue our journey toward Christmas. And today’s supporting cast member in the marvelous Christmas story is a woman of tremendous Faith, Mary the mother of Jesus.

[Mary enters in contemporary dress]

Mary: Words cannot describe how I felt when I first learned you were to be the mother of God’s Son.

Mary: I was totally shocked when an angel showed up out of nowhere and told me I was to be the mother of the Messiah! Me! A poor young woman engaged to a carpenter. Why would God choose us to raise his son? I was scared to death!

Joseph and I were engaged but not married yet. You can’t imagine what my family and the townspeople would say about that. And what could I tell Joseph? He’d never believe God was the father of my baby! Nobody would. Joseph would assume I had been unfaithful to him. That was considered adultery, and the punishment for that was death by stoning! I was really scared!

But the angel told me that God was with me. He said, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and being a devout Jewish girl, I knew this was true. Faith came over me and calmed my fear. I suddenly just knew that I could trust God completely. And from a place deep inside me I said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Then the angel told me about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, and I went to visit her so we could share our joy and excitement. But the joy I felt with Elizabeth couldn’t compare with what came later in that stable in Bethlehem. When Jesus was born and the soft moonlight gently fell on the one who was to be the light of the world, then we knew what real Joy was.

[Goes to Advent Wreath]

I hope my story reminds all of us that we are called to be faithful servants who know that with God all things are possible. As we light the fourth Candle of Advent may it light the way on our journey from fear to faith.

[4th in a series of Advent dramas by supporting characters in the Christmas Story, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

Advent Drama: Joseph

Pastor: Can you feel the anticipation as we draw close to the big day? Two candles are already glowing on our Advent Wreath. As we continue to think about the supporting cast of people in the Christmas story our special guest today is a carpenter from Nazareth.

[Joseph enters dressed in contemporary work clothes wearing a tool belt, pencil behind his ear]

Joseph: My journey began with our prearranged marriage. Our parents certainly picked well for me. Mary was so beautiful and she has such a strong faith. I was truly blessed to have a wife of such noble character. The custom for us is to wait an entire year after we were engaged before the marriage vows are finalized. That year of being apart and waiting seemed like forever. But Mary was worth the wait because I loved her.

But then the waiting became much harder than I could ever imagine. There was a night that left me feeling so cold and alone, in total shock. Mary’s news broke my heart when she told me she was pregnant. My head was spinning and my heart pounding. I knew I wasn’t the father? I was so hurt and angry and confused. I wrestled with my decision all night long. How could I marry her now? I wanted to just divorce her quietly. But I knew the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. I couldn’t let that happen to my dear Mary.

It was a terrible dilemma! How could I ever decide what to do? And then the answer came to me in a dream. An angel appeared to me and said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is the result of a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.” The angel said, “You will name the baby Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.” When I woke up I knew what I should do. The stars were brighter and my heart lighter as I ran to tell Mary my decision. I decided I would be the best husband and father I could possibly be.

But that wasn’t the only time God spoke to me in a dream. I got an urgent message from God when Jesus was very tiny warning us that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys, and we had to flee to Egypt to save Jesus’ life.

Being a father to such an unusual boy wasn’t easy, but through it all God has taught us so much about love – love for each other and God’s love for us. The real miracle was that God’s son became my son too. He was bonded into my life by love.

As we light this 3rd Advent candle, may that kind of love grow in each of our hearts as well.

[Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

Lighting the Second Advent Candle: Elizabeth

Elizabeth: Good morning church. My name is Elizabeth and my amazing story started when my husband, Zechariah, went to serve his term at the temple. He was very late getting home. I bet some of you women know what waiting for a husband to come home is like. I wondered what was taking so long, and when he did return, he was, well speechless. I mean he was really speechless! He couldn’t talk. But Zechariah proceeded, in sign language (she gestures with hands), to tell me that he had seen an angel while he was in the temple. This angel told him –get this—that I was going to have a baby – me. At my age! Does Medicare cover maternity bills?

Zechariah said the angel told him we were to have a son and name him John. The angel said that many people would rejoice because of our son’s birth. The angel promised that John would be great in God’s eyes and bring many people back to the Lord. What more could any woman want than a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah? (pause)

I kept to myself during most of my pregnancy. Then one day there was a knock on the door, and their stood my cousin Mary. When she greeted me, my baby leaped in my womb (reacts to the baby, hands on belly) at the sound of her voice, and the Spirit filled me with more joy than I have never known! I knew, through the Spirit, that Mary was the mother of my Lord!

Elizabeth (after brief pause): Wishing that same Joy to you and the world, I light this second Advent candle.

[Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, December 10, 2017]

Lighting the Christ Candle:

During the Advent season, we have waited like expectant parents for God to deliver – to show up in the big brown truck with the promised gifts of hope, peace, joy and love. We wait in a world that has never needed those gifts more. And God hides the gifts in plain sight, in Bethlehem, right where the prophets told us they would be. And like every year, we’re surprised, still not convinced that God’s Messiah should be born in a barn.

Tonight our waiting is rewarded as we celebrate again the eternal gift of unconditional love and the marvelous ways God leads us to the Light of the World. God showed the shepherds and the magi the way to Bethlehem. And tonight God is showing us the Way again.

We light the Christ Candle on this holy night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. He has led us here and calls us to follow him on a marvelous journey of seeking, finding, waiting, hoping and growing.

Prayer:

O eternal God, forgive us when we doubt that a peasant boy of low estate could possibly overcome our fearful and divided world. When our skepticism threatens to overwhelm us, wrap us in the warm swaddling cloths of hope, peace, joy and love. We have waited and prayed for your Messiah. Now it’s time for us to receive the most precious gift ever and to be the light of Christ to warm and heal broken lives and our darkened world. In the holy name of the one we celebrate this night, Amen.

Advent IV, Unextinguishable Love

advent-waiting-img_1492 The decorations are up, the stockings are hung with care, and children are bursting with anticipation. The nativity scene is set in its special place, but the manger is still empty. The nursery is stocked by Babies R Us, but the guest of honor has not yet arrived. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to cuddle the tiny new life in our arms. We are so close we can feel the baby kicking in the womb, and we are filled with a rich mixture of joy and anxiety. As we wait, let’s remember how different Jesus’ arrival was from birth today, and yet how similar. Parenting is a universal gift of love. In a birthing suite or a stable, to hear that first cry melts our hearts with instant love. Birth is worth every second of the long wait. And so today we light the 4th Advent candle, a light no darkness can extinguish, the candle of Love.

Prayer:
O God, our heavenly parent, we are so close we can see the lights of Bethlehem reflecting on icy roads. Forgive us when we get distracted from the destination of our Advent journey. With trees and houses and malls ablaze with Christmas decorations, it’s easy to get lost on our way to the manger. Disturbing news from inhumane places like Aleppo threaten to extinguish our hope for humankind. Winter storms cancel much needed Sabbath worship services. Remind us again O God that even in the shortest, darkest of days the light of the world awaits us in Bethlehem’s modest manger, and that light is constant and unfailing. It is the light of love; a love that makes room for a mother in labor in a strange place; a love that hears angels sing of peace on earth and joy to the world. As the lights from on the Advent wreath grow brighter, help us welcome the gift of love into our hearts; so we can be midwives in a dark and weary world, helping give birth to the miracle of love. In the name of the one who is Love in human form we pray. Amen.

Wait Training: Third Sunday in Advent

advent-waiting-img_1492[This was our Advent Candle lighting for today at Northwest UMC. The opening monologue was written by Rev. Mebane McMahon and performed beautifully by Heather Sherrill. I wrote the candle lighting liturgy and prayer.]

(Talking on a cell phone) I understand I just had the test yesterday. I know you said, “Make an appointment with your family doctor next week. She’ll have the results by then.” I heard you say that, but do you have any idea how hard it is for me to wait until NEXT week. You told me that my blood work came back with some elevated levels. What exactly does that mean?

As I said, “I have this pain in my side, but last night I could barely sleep. (gesturing) the pain moved to my back!! What could that mean? (A little hysterically) It’s spreading!? This infection, inflammation, this blockage, this rupture or CANCER. It’s spreading. I know it is.

Christmas is 2 weeks away. I have two small children. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR PAIN. How long do I have to wait? (Apologetically) I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. (sighing) I guess I’ll just have to wait. (hangs up call)

(Pacing and thinking out loud) Stay positive Heather. It might NOT be a life-threatening disease. Wait, she says. WAIT. (Takes a deep breath, Silence. Reflection.) I’m not good at this. Is there anybody who will wait with me? And pray for me? And help me when I can’t help myself?….And….And (softening and calming down. Breathing deeply) huh. I wonder if there is someone I can help in the meantime. Is there anybody else I know who is having to wait like this?

(Praying) O God, how long? How long do I have to wait for a diagnosis, for treatment and recovery? How long do I have to wait for healing and what exactly will that look like? How long? How long O Lord? (exits)

Candle Liturgy:
We are on our way to Bethlehem and the Advent journey gives us time to prepare our hearts and make room for the gifts of compassion, patience and joy that God wants us to have. But time moves so slowly when we’re waiting—waiting for a text or phone call—for news that our kids are OK; for a doctor to give us good news or bad news. Either way, it’s better to know than to be left hanging in the unknown where our imaginations can drive us crazy. As people of faith we know where we are and whose we are. Scripture and carols and prayer are the signposts on our journey that give us hope and peace. And today we light the third candle, the candle of Joy. The light is growing and Joy shines from our hearts to those who need good news.

Prayer:
O Holy God, waiting is exhausting and every year we seem to need the good news of Christmas more than ever. Help us wait with patience for the promised Joy of the season, but remind us that our waiting is not passive. Forgive us when we get so concerned about ourselves that we fail to see the needs of those around us. When we are anxious give us again the assurance that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Remind us once more that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” so we can share your joyful good news for the world. Renew our hearts, O God, with your eternal love and help us be the joy we long for in the way we live and in how we relate to those who wait with us. In the name of the coming Christ we pray. Amen.