Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year! In this last week of the 2022 calendar year, we are celebrating the 12 days of Christmas at the Harris house. Each day is a mini-celebration! It's also my birthday week, so you can see how easy it is for me to claim the whole week as a celebration. This Sunday, JANUARY 1st, we will have ONE WORSHIP SERVICE AT 10 AM. We will gather in the Sanctuary and share the story of the Magi and their search for the baby King.
(Read Matthew 2:1-12.) Come and join in worship with us!
In the story from Matthew, we read about the Magi who are nameless. Only later and from other christian traditions do their names appear: Balthazar, Casper, and Melchior. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is not clear exactly when they showed up in Bethlehem. Matthew implies sometime after the birth of Jesus and sometime before Herod ordered all male children under age two to be killed. One thing is clear, God's light in Christ was a guide for them in their journey. And the direction of their travel was keenly directed by the light of a special star.
For me the message of the Wise Men has many nuances, none so inviting as the invitation to a direction for commitment. They had to make a large investment in their journey. Time, energy, resources. We hear about their gifts, but what about their entourage? After all they were nobility. Would they have been just three men traveling on camels? I don't think so. I bet there were baggage handlers, animal caretakers, tent crews, waterboys, star chart assistants, and a security detail. I believe they and their trail partners were fully committed to finding what they saw in their mystic revelation as something new. They were seekers of something new to be found in an unknown baby king. They came from the nations surrounding Judah. Part of the story is that they probably came from Babylon, Persia, and maybe even India. From the east they traveled following a star making a very long journey in search of Christ. They were committed. They were directed.
After the twelve days of Christmas, we celebrate Epiphany on January 6th. A manifestation of a divine being (Christ) to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. Epiphanies are triggered by a new piece of information causing a new understanding of some previous knowledge. If you make the leap with me here, let's go to Isaiah 60:1-6 and read about the prophet's vision of the restoration of Israel. "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." "A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord." A vision of redemption is the prophet's hope. And we Christians claim that redemption in Jesus Christ, the Light of God.
Direction and Commitment are words I will use in my faith journey into a new year. I hope you find a sudden and striking manifestation, an epiphany of God's love and grace this new year. The direction we seek is provided. The commitment we make is up to each of us Along the Way.
Are you ready for Christmas Eve worship services? We are hoping to welcome you home along with many other persons on December 24th as we make ready for in-person and online worship experiences at Manchaca UMC. This year, we offer services at 3:00 pm, 5:00 pm, and 7:00 pm. Consider this a personal invitation to you and your family to come join us in the Sanctuary for a wonderful celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Many "C"hristian churches are offering similar worship services. Why come? I believe it is a great time to be available for an experience of the glory of the Lord. You might ask, what is the glory of the Lord? Luke's gospel narrative of the birth of Jesus places Mary (birth mother) and Joseph (earth father) in Bethlehem, a village just south of Jerusalem during the seasonal census, registration, and taxation event sponsored by the Roman Empire. Joseph's family of origin traced back to King David who grew up in this area. And so Joseph returned and brought a very pregnant Mary with him. (See Luke 2:1-7)
While Mary is giving birth to Jesus somewhere in Bethlehem (the house of bread), there is a brilliant flash of light and the voice of an angel of the Lord that "visits" some shepherds in the fields nearby. The message of Jesus' arrival and this important birth is announced. That is the main thing. That's why we come together in worship on Christmas Eve and tell this story - GOD is with us in the birth of Jesus! (See Luke 2: 8-14)
But I also like to share this story because of its unexpected recipients - the shepherds.
They were considered unclean, they were not welcome in polite social circles in the city, they were despised by those in power. And the glory of the Lord was made known directly to them. Just think, the brilliant light and the messenger of God did not show up in the big city church with the fancy sanctuary. God's direct message was not reserved for those in power, either religious or political. The glory of the Lord was made known in a field just outside a village to a bunch of no-bodies. Luke's gospel story sets the stage for God to be made known through the visits of the Angel, first to Zechariah, then to Mary (on both accounts making the promise of a son), and then in a THIRD VISIT to a bunch of shepherds.
Back to the glory of God. If you want to read more about the Exodus of the people of Israel who God rescued from slavery in Egypt, look to the book we call Exodus in the Hebrew Scripture (some call it the Old Testament) and find these places where the glory of the Lord is made known: Exodus 14:17-18, 16:10, 24:17, 40:34-35. And then in the story of Solomon's Temple find the glory of the Lord showing up again (1 Kings 8:9-21). In each case, God's presence is made real to those persons in the story. In the deliverance of a people through the wilderness years, in the daily presence of the pillar of fire, and in the cloud that came into the tabernacle, the glory of the Lord appeared in such a way that those experiencing it were fully aware of the power and majesty of God.
That is what happened on the third visit of the angel of the Lord in Luke's gospel narrative. The glory of the Lord appeared to them. We tell the story and often skim over the spectacle of the shepherds in the field. Who they were... are were not. And the glory of God, you would think someone more important would have been chosen to receive the message. If you are still with me, just think - the glory of the Lord could show up in our lives too!
Even unexpectedly, most importantly unexpectedly and in the least likely location. It does not have to be in the fancy sanctuary. It could be wherever we are gathered this year. Standing beside a friend laying in the hospital with a viral infection. At the end of the longest line on the last day of shopping. In an out of the way, back street cafe with a someone who is hungry. In videos or photos sent by family unable to gather for the holidays.
The message comes in the glory of the Lord. The message is that God is with us in Jesus! That is the story we will share on Christmas Eve. We would love for you to be a part of that night with our church family.
Along the Way
Anticipating the Joy of Christmas in this season of Advent for our family includes decorations of light on trees. These three photos show the Christmas trees outside my office at Manchaca UMC, on our breakfast nook bench, and out front of our home. Various size trees with various light sources. There is no magical formula for the rightness of the decoration. The things that are represented are the everlasting (in the greenery of the tree) and the light (white, multi-colored, flashing, not flashing, you choose) of this season. Everlasting light is the message to be conveyed!
We could stop right there and everybody would love the photos and the trees and the lights and all that we do to busy ourselves in this special season. Or, we can keep reading.
On Christmas Eve, the church will read scripture readings that are shared in the story of Jesus coming into our world as the Everlasting Light. As Christians, we reach into the Hebrew Scripture for a word about everlasting and light. In the prophet Isaiah, ninth chapter, we hear a word of hope and promise for the people of Galilee of one to come and restore their people:
"But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in the darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined." (Isaiah 9:1-2)
Light as opposed to darkness, joy instead of oppression, peace instead of war. These are the things of which the prophet speaks. These are the hopeful promises of a prophet speaking truth to those who would hear. The people of the 8th century before Jesus needed to hear such words. The people of the first century in the same area also needed to hear these words. I think these words are timeless and I think we need to hear them again for each of us today.
For a child has been born for us, a son is given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 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 righteousness from this time onward and forevermore." (Isaiah 9:6-7)
The Prince of Peace as referred to in Isaiah the prophet is a term that continues in this story of everlasting light, hope and promise, peace and joy. For the one we claim as Savior is Christ the Lord, Jesus - the Incarnation of God with us, Emmanuel - born to Mary in a manger in Bethlehem.
We will also share the gospel story from Luke 2 in which a great light appears to shepherds in the fields. That part of the story I will save for Christmas Eve. Join us at Manchaca UMC at one of THREE worship services: 3:00 pm, 5:00 pm, or 7:00 pm. Hear the story again and make it your own. Light the candles of love with us in our candlelight service and celebrate the everlasting presence of God in Jesus.
Merry Christmas EVE
Author: Paul E Harris
Journal posts from a pastor and spiritual friend