University Congregational Church
December 1, 2013
“Preparing a Place”
Happy New Year! Not what you were expecting? Today actually is the beginning of the new church year, or liturgical year. The Christian calendar starts with Advent. And given the whole meaning of the word, Advent, it makes sense. We start with preparing the way for a birth – God come to us – a new child who teaches the old.
I realize that UCC isn’t terribly liturgical and that in our history, not much has been made of the church seasons. More recently, I understand, there have been more opportunities to celebrate the seasons.
The liturgical cycle divides the year into a series of seasons, each with their own mood, theological emphases, and modes of prayer, which can be signified by different ways of decorating churches, colors of paraments and vestments for clergy, scriptural readings, themes for preaching and even different traditions and practices often observed personally or in the home.
Personally, I love the rhythm of the church seasons. It gives me focus and thoughtful opportunity to examine the whole of life – for example: Advent is about pregnancy and preparation Christmas is about birth and blessings Epiphany (my favorite season, and the one in which I was ordained) is about hopes and dreams Lent is about confession, forgiveness, and reflection about the purpose of life Easter is the celebration of our new life and the realization that we participate in the cycle of death and life
Pentecost is the season to remember that God gifts us with abilities, talents, and that we are to use our talents to build up the church
And so we begin on this first day of the church year, talking about the Advents in our lives. The theme today is hope. So often, we jump to Christmas without an advent time to get ready for the birth of Christ in our lives. But to do so misses a wealth of understanding.
The Advent journey begins in darkness. Often, we associate darkness with evil and light with good. However, it is darkness which is required for birth and growth. Seeds are planted in dark soil for time to develop and grow. Babies are formed and developed in the darkness of the womb. Our own souls are within our bodies, in the dark. Advent teaches us that in the dark there are holy possibilities for intimacy, for rest, for hope.
Although we may not normally think of the dark as a place for the Divine, the darkness of Advent is a godly thing. It was in the quiet of the 1st Advent that an angel appeared to Mary to tell her of the coming of her baby. It was in his sleep, in the dark, that Joseph was told of Mary’s pregnancy and how he would respond. It is often in the fertile darkness of sleep and dreams or in the deepest darkest part of life that God calls a word of hope to us. In this way, let us hear the ancient words about the angelic dream given to Joseph:
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engage 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. 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.’” Matt. 1:18-21
We may find living in the dark fearsome or confusing. I have a friend who lives in Norway and she is regularly talking about making the most use of the short days
in which little or no hours of light are available. Last week she said that since they no longer get son at their house, they found some sunshine midday on a walk. The picture looks like a misty sunset over a lake. That doesn’t sound particularly healthy or holy to me. However, what we know about walking in the darkness is that it teaches us to rely on sense other than sight. And it is in this process of heightened smelling, feeling, and hearing that we come to understand that darkness bears the capacity for good.
So, as your pastor, let me ask you a few personal questions for reflection:
1. Are you in the dark, fertile womb of God where an idea, a vision, an opportunity or a ministry is being formed?
2. Have you been visited in your dreams with a new reality?
3. What longs to be born in you this season?
Each day, noise and confusion bombard us. If you went out on Black Friday, or watched those who did, you know about this! Even if you stayed home, you may have been told on television the newest thing you need. It seems that we cannot go shopping, read the paper, listen to the radio, or even talk with friends without being told what we are looking for in life, what will make us complete. But the voices will never tell us what we really long for, what we desire within our hearts and souls.
Those who sit in darkness know. During Advent, we are called to sit in the dark and to discover God. Instead of rushing around with preparations for Christmas, we need some time in the darkness, waiting for a word from God, preparing ourselves for growth, and germinating new seeds of possibility.
Story of Misha
In 1994, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of education to teach morals and ethics (based on Biblical principles) in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments and a large orphanage. About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and were in the care of a government-run program in the
orphanage. One of the Americans related the following story in their own words about his experience:
It was nearing the holiday season, 1994, time for our orphans to hear, for the first time, the traditional story of Christmas. We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger.
Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word. Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available I the city.
Following the instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States. The orphans were busy assembling their manger as I walked among them to see if they needed any help.
All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger. Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at this completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately-until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
Then Misha started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, “And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I
couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everyone else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me. “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him-for always”
As Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of t ears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon or abuse him, someone who would stay with him.
Misha opened his heart and offered to keep Jesus warm, and in return, he received the greatest gift he wished for. Is it possible for us to prepare a warm, moist, dark place for God in our lives so that God can be with us and bring hope, real hope into our lives at Christmas?
God is preparing for a coming birth, within us – within our own selves.