Sunday, December 25, 2016

Welcoming the Light

Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)

2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Once upon a time, back in the 1960s, 7-11 ran a radio commercial featuring a guy who worked at 7-11.  He bragged about how wonderful it was to have a store opened from 7 am till 11 pm 364 days a year!  They were only closed on Christmas.  (This was kind of a first because, for those of you who may not know this, once upon a time there was no such thing as a store being open 24 hours a day.  Even gas stations closed up in the evening.  Pretty much everyplace closed on Sunday. Maybe truck stops stayed open, but that was about it.)  Then there was a pause, and he said rather plaintively, “But what am I going to do on Christmas?”

That conversation has been going on around places where ministers gather, too.  Because this year Christmas comes on a Sunday, so the question has been, “Are you going to have worship on December 25th?”  It seems that some of the very large churches are closing (again) so the staff can spend the holiday with family.  And I’m thinking that there wouldn’t be any need for family celebration if not for the birth we celebrate on this day.  So, why not worship today?

I mean, it is the day the light entered the world.  When we look at pictures like the one Leah chose to illustrate today’s message, our hearts fill with song.  There are so many songs that spring to my mind . . . O little town of Bethlehem, Silent night  . . . what songs do you think of when you see this?
(wait for someone to sing Rudolf . . .)  

Turning toward the screen, where I “expect” to see a scene of Bethlehem under the star, only to see Rudolf.  “Leah!  What is this?  I thought we were going with a more traditional look this year?”  Silliness continues for a moment.    Then . . .putting on my Santa hat . . .

All righty, then.  What do we know about Rudolf?
He had a very shiny nose - he was different.
The other reindeer laughed at him and called him names - he was bullied
They wouldn’t let him play with them - he was excluded.

I wonder  …  when Montgomery Ward first published the Rudolf story in 1939, do you suppose they were thinking about the bullying and exclusion of people who were different?  Because this has been reality for probably as long as there have been people.  Today, of course, people can get in trouble for bullying.  People who are different are protected by the laws of the land.  But back then, and forever before, people who were different in any way were often, usually,  mistreated.   It’s sad to see that reality reflected in a children’s story that has been repeated for almost 80 years!  But here comes the good part.

“Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, “Rudolf with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’”  

Santa saw Rudolf’s shiny nose, not just as something different, but as a gift that could be used to help him, and the other reindeer, and save Christmas!  No longer something that made Rudolf stand out in a bad way,  “Now all the reindeer loved him!”  

Confession time.  All that fun with the Rudolf picture - Leah and I planned that.  We even made sure a lovely Bethlehem scene was in the PowerPoint distributed to the folks who help make sure we don’t have too many mistakes so everyone would be surprised. You see, my friend Danny Bradfield, Pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, posted on Facebook a few days ago that he would be using this story to talk about accepting differences.  I loved it, and immediately told him that I would be sharing his idea with my own congregation.

Because this story, the way it turns out, is a teaching story, one we can all learn an important lesson from.  We might need some really good reason to change our minds about someone who looks or acts or speaks differently than we do, or who comes from a different place, or who follows a different faith tradition.  But when we look for the gifts that come with those differences, we will stop rejecting them, stop excluding them, stop bullying them, and accept them as equals.  

Jesus was also different.  It is possible, even pretty likely, that some of the children in his home town of Nazareth teased him, if their parents had been counting on fingers when he was born.   And as if that wasn’t enough, when he was only 12 he posed such intelligent questions to the priests and lawyers at the Temple that they marveled!  Which is a truly great thing, but probably didn’t make him any more popular among his peers.  I wonder if the boys in Nazareth excluded him from their games, as the reindeer excluded Rudolf.  

Rudolf and his shiny, glowing nose lit the way for Santa and the other reindeer that Christmas Eve, bringing light into the foggy night so that all the children of the world could get their Christmas Eve visit from Santa.  And that was a wonderful thing.

Jesus brought the light of God’s love into the world, and that is a great thing.  Jesus is the light of the world, bringing God’s love and peace into the darkness of sin and sorrow, opening hearts, healing souls, easing pain, instilling hope.  Let us fill our hearts with that light, singing praises to our God, and accepting all others as God’s beloved children, no matter how different they may be.  

Let us welcome the light, rejoicing in the birth of Jesus, the Christ.  And let us take that light out into the world with us, so that every one may know that the Christ is born, the light is come to take away the darkness, God’s love has entered our world.  

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