Sunday, January 4, 2015
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! The waiting is over – Christ is born, it’s 2015 and time to start a new year! Have you ever waited for something for a long time? Every year around Christmas time when Pastor Rich and I send out cards to family and friends, we remember something we’d been waiting for a LONG time. Rich studied abroad in Germany for a year in college, and like many college students, when he was getting ready to go back home to the States he procrastinated on packing. He ran out of room for some of his stuff, so he packed it in a big box and gave it to his German friend, Stefan, who promised he would ship the box to his house in New Jersey. Well, another year came and went, and back in New Jersey, Rich sent Stefan Christmas greetings and inquired about his box. “I’ll be sure and send it to you soon,” Stefan replied. The same conversation happened every year until it became a long-standing joke – “Merry Christmas, Stefan! How’s my box doing?” “Happy New Year, Rich! Hope all is well – I’ll send you the box soon!” Rich left Germany in 2004, so at some point he must’ve given up hope of ever seeing that box again. Until one late November day last year, after Thanksgiving, I came home, checked the mail, and found a note from our local post office that a box was waiting for us in town. I assumed it was a Christmas package from a friend or relative. But when I walked into the post office, the postmaster said, “Wait a minute, I’ll need back-up for this one.” And after the sweat and muscle of three postal workers, there it was, taking up most of the trunk of my tiny car: Rich’s box from Stefan, nine years after Rich had originally entrusted those belongings to his friend.
“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” we hear from John’s gospel this morning. The promises, spoken by God through people since the beginning of creation, finally took shape in the person of Jesus Christ, the baby in a manger at Christmastime. God kept the Word – those promises weren’t empty, God wasn’t just paying lip-service – God promised, and God acted so that those words became true. The Word – Jesus Christ – became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Christ the Savior is born! That’s what Christmas is all about!
Sadly, probably all of us in this room today know what it’s like to be let down. The promised box never comes. That lunch date you’ve been meaning to set up with a friend never gets made – “Oh, we should get together sometime and catch up,” we say, right? Even though we know we won’t. We’ve been let down by empty promises, and we’ve probably failed to follow through on some of our own promises, too. We say things we don’t mean to make someone happy, to give them false hope, or even because we genuinely mean to act on those promises but run out of time and energy. Because of these experiences of disappointment, we may find it hard to trust that God would do what God promises to do. It may be difficult to see signs of God at work right here, today, beyond the words we hear from this book (the bible). That’s precisely WHY God sends tangible signs of things we can touch, feel, and see so that we KNOW God’s word is true. Bread and wine. The waters of baptism. A Christmas card in the mail just when we needed it. A baby lying in a manger. The WORD becomes flesh for us – a visible sign that God is with us and has come to save us.
The truth is, Stefan really could’ve given up on sending the box, and we’d have been alright. But when Rich opened his box, there were letters and photos from his grandma Addy, now gone. There were books and trinkets he had purchased as he traveled around Europe that year. To pretty much anyone else, the box had a bunch of junk in it – not much of value. But for Rich, they were irreplaceable memories of people and places from a very important time in his life. I think also the experience strengthened our faith in one friend’s loyalty to us and to his promises, because Stefan DID follow through. For us as Christians, Christmas is a sign from God that God’s promises are reliable and sure. We have God’s words here in God’s word, the Bible, but we also have concrete, tangible signs that God was, is and will be active in the world through Jesus Christ. God doesn’t just speak some words to make empty promises – God shows up for us, again, again, and again – “gift after gift after gift” as the Message Bible puts it.
In fact, as we read through the scriptures, we see God speaking and then acting all of the time: at the beginning of creation, God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light, Genesis tells us. Moses receives the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, and they are written on stone tablets for all of the Israelites to see. With a word, Moses divides the Red Sea so the Israelites can cross over on dry land. With a shout, the walls of Jericho come down. With a command, Jesus tells the lame to walk and the blind regain their sight. Angels tell Mary she will have a son, and Jesus is born. God’s word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. God speaks, and things get done! Today is still Christmas, and that means the waiting is over – we don’t have to wait any more either to see God at work in the world!
SO, Bethel Lutheran Church, how has God moved into OUR neighborhood? Where do you see God at work, here? How can we be signs of Christ’s presence, the Word made flesh, here in Morton Meadows? I have a few ideas – we’re taking up the Nebraska Synod’s Souper Bowl challenge this month to help restock the pantry at Project Hope for families in need – every week, Project Hope should be getting more and more needed food & paper supplies for their shelves. We have a prison ministry, Crossroads Connections, here in Omaha that is in need of church groups to come in and lead worship among other things. The VA hospital across the street is also asking church groups to worship at their Protestant service on Sunday mornings. Our council will be going on retreat this month to reflect more on where the Holy Spirit might be calling us to serve and respond to these mission opportunities. There’s more we could be doing. These are just some possibilities.
But let’s look at what God is doing even right here right now at Bethel every Sunday! We have the opportunity to warmly welcome every single person who comes in our doors with a smile, a brief introduction, a place to connect with God and other people in meaningful conversation and worship. WE are God’s signs to others that God’s word is not just a bunch of letters on a page, but living and active right here in our neighborhood today. We can help people leave church on Sunday to be the church in the world the rest of the week, to help others outside our doors see how God is moving in our neighborhood. In this season of new beginnings, we know that some of those New Year’s resolutions may start to wear off. We may fall into all sorts of old habits. Probably some of the promises we make to ourselves or others will fall short of our hopes and expectations. Jesus is God’s sign and reminder to us that even when we fail, God never fails. In our neighborhood, in our families, and in our church, God has moved in! Thanks be to God!