Archive for December, 2015

Time for Some Good News

Rebecca Sheridan

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Luke 2:1-20

Merry Christmas! The angels tell us tonight, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Good news…isn’t it time for some good news? I’d like us all to think about the most recent news headlines we’ve heard or read. What first comes to mind? Here’s what I literally found on when I looked online: “U.S. troops killed in bomb attack,” “Driver hits 38 pedestrians in Las Vegas,” “New threat shuts more schools,” “Obama challenges media on ISIS.” With a few changes to the details of location and numbers, these are headlines that we unfortunately are hearing week after week – too many bad news headlines, too often. The world seems to be full of bad news these days.

Now, certainly there were good news headlines as well from our own Omaha World Herald: “Huskers win the NCAA women’s volleyball championship,” “Star Wars sets box office record,” “Parents donate to Goodfellows to honor son,” but I’m going to guess that when I asked you to think about what news you’ve heard most recently, the first thing that came to mind was bad news, not good. That’s the kind of news that keeps us up at night – the news that causes us to worry or even to be afraid for our world, for our country, and for our future. Just to make a humorous point, my friend Pastor Jeremy Fuerst recently moved to Everett, Washington to serve a local Lutheran congregation there, and this is how the local newspaper introduced the new pastor in town! (show newspaper image)

It’s easy to focus on the negative that’s happening in our world, and certainly, there’s a lot of it. We’re bombarded with reminders that our world is not whole and not at peace, so much so that when we sing “Peace to all the earth,” it’s hard to believe it, right? Tonight we loudly and joyfully sing, “Jesus Christ is born today! Now ye hear of endless bliss: Jesus Christ was born for this!” and “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Do we mean it? Can we believe it? How does this good news of Jesus’ birth speak to the fears and hopes that we have tonight?

On that first Christmas night in Bethlehem those who were gathered around the manger had good news, the BEST news ever, in fact, staring them right in the face, and yet they were afraid. They had trouble trusting this child, Christ Jesus would change the world. First of all, who doesn’t love the good news of a baby’s birth – any baby’s birth?! But we know Mary and Joseph were afraid – Mary, an unwed teenager and Joseph her anxious betrothed who is hoping he made the right decision to take Mary as his wife anyway and raise this child who is not his own. The young couple out of fear of the government and its harsh tax system goes to Bethlehem, only to discover there is no place for them. Mary gives birth in a barn, without her cousin Elizabeth’s protection, without a midwife to assist her. These first-time parents go through the birthing process alone, surrounded by barn animals, straw and dirt. No sanitized bassinet but an animal feeding trough for this newborn baby Jesus – thank God they didn’t know about compromised immune systems: that would’ve been one more thing to add the fears of these new parents.

And the shepherds’ first reaction to the angels is not joy, but fear as well. They are terrified, Luke tells us. But the angel gives us a message for us all to heed this Christmas: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Good news is staring at Mary, at Joseph, at the shepherds, right in the face, and for a moment, they forget to notice it. Their fears consume them. The angel’s words give them a new focus for a bright future, regardless of the dangers and risks this child might also bring: today in the city of Bethlehem a savior is born. The angel’s message is for us, too, tonight: good news of great joy for us, for those people out there wherever they are…in a refugee camp, in a house by themselves as they grieve the loss of loved ones, in Bethlehem tonight as war between Palestinians and Israelis continues. For teachers, for students, for police officers and soldiers and presidents and presidential candidates, for us all: Christ the Savior is born!

Here is the baby Jesus’ challenge to us tonight: can we hear the good news louder than all the bad news that surrounds us? Can we trust and believe that goodness is stronger than evil, love more powerful than death, and that God’s love for us poured out for us in Jesus Christ is truly for us and for the world? How do we help make the words we sing and the good news we hear about and read about every Christmas ring true for a world still mired in fear, hopelessness, and doubt?

I don’t have all the answers for us tonight, other than my fierce belief that this is why Jesus makes a difference, and why our world so desperately needs Jesus. The world needs to hear some good news, and even just a little good news this Christmas can go a long way. We can start small with words like, “I’m praying for you.” “I’m thinking about you this first Christmas without your loved one.” We can speak with our actions: Christmas cookies to your neighbors, Project Angel tree gifts for families who don’t have much, a local food pantry donation. Or we can speak even more boldly: inviting someone without family to church and then to your home for Christmas dinner, sponsoring a refugee family here in Omaha through Lutheran Family Services, giving generously to ELCA World Hunger, serving a meal at a local shelter. We can point people to the good news of Jesus Christ for people bogged down by fear.

Let’s not forget, Jesus’ good news is for us to share with others, but it is for us, too. The angels remind the shepherds to look, to GO and SEE the good news of Jesus’ birth. We, too, can look for signs that Christ is still God with us, Immanuel, among us. Tonight gives us the opportunity to take such a pause to notice God’s signs for us that Jesus still lives and walks among us. Signs of hope, signs of life, signs of good defeating evil…all of these things are God’s reminder to us that he is our Lord and Savior, with us eternally! Amen.


A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Luke 3:1-6


We can’t say enough how good it is to be back in worship with all of you, and we can’t thank you enough for allowing us those six weeks to start out as a family and get to know one another!! In the gospel this morning, we hear these words, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” You might guess those words struck me differently this Advent, as I routinely now wake up every 2-4 hours a night to attend to a particular voice that cries out “feed me” in her own special way! One of the things we’ve learned as new parents is to understand our daughter’s cries; figuring out when she’s hungry, or overtired, or gassy, or simply just wants some attention. Already, there are some cries that we have learned to ignore – she’s a noisy sleeper and sometimes cries out in her sleep, or she might whimper softly when we put her down in her crib, but she’ll quickly go back to sleep. And then there are the cries we pay attention to – is she too hot, too cold, hungry, or does she have a dirty diaper? Those are the cries where she’s trying to tell us something important. As a parent, those cries pierce your soul when you can’t figure out exactly what she means with those cries.

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of John the Baptist. He’s pretty weird. He goes around wearing animal clothes and eating bugs. He lives in the desert apparently like a recluse. He shouts foreboding things and kind of reminds me of a street corner preacher. But in the gospels, people listen to him, for some reason. They believe what he has to say is worth taking the time to heed. That means we might want to pay attention to what John the Baptist says, too.

John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness with important words: “Prepare the way of the Lord! All flesh shall see the salvation of God!” In other words: Jesus is coming. Jesus is God with us, in the flesh. And he will save us. Those are important words to listen to –even from a somewhat crazy disheveled hermit. They give us hope and assurance that God has not abandoned us but has come to us and for us in Jesus Christ.

In our culture today, there are lots of voices crying out with messages that honestly are not worth listening to. They are unimportant and sometimes even harmful cries. “Buy this and you’ll be happy.” Better yet – “Buy this, and your kids, spouse, or grandkids will REALLY love you,” as I heard one commercial recently almost say, word for word. Gearing up for next November, campaign ads tell us to vote a certain way, that you’re not a good Christian if you don’t ascribe to a particular political party or candidate. Taking advantage of holiday feasting guilt and upcoming New Year’s resolutions, gyms and fitness gurus tell us we would be a lot happier if we were ten pounds lighter—and of course they have the solution for you to look better. There are a lot of voices crying out to try to convince us that life is about self-indulgence, individual happiness, and buying more stuff to fix our problems.

John the Baptist cries out with a much different message. “Prepare the way of the Lord” – it’s about God, not about us. I think that’s what we strive toward when we say in our mission statement that we are blessed to serve God – we are blessed not to serve our own needs, or to serve others to make them happy all the time (because we can’t), but we are blessed to serve God. We have been created by God to serve and worship God first and foremost. That’s why John the Baptist is often pictured in classical art as pointing to Christ. In all of the gospels, John has to remind his followers that he is not the one they should be following, but that Jesus is far greater than he is. He takes the attention from himself and points people to Jesus. His message calls people to prepare for Jesus’ coming, not to please himself.

Then John the Baptist says, “Every valley should be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Jesus is coming, John reminds us, to lift up the lowly and humble the proud. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. I had a friend recently return from a church delegation visit to Ethiopia. She told me it was the worst time of year to come back to western civilization. She writes, “In Ethiopia, there is no food! There is no healthcare! There are no toilets! The body of Christ is dirty and diseased! And we’re complaining about the little things! The very day of my return from Ethiopia, the church invited its employees to a “Christmas party.” Friends, this involved a (bad, but expensive) hired band, a hired comedian, the hiring of a party locale (heaven forbid we meet in a church), and a three-course FANCY dinner. We’re talking thousands of thousands of dollars. For the employees of the church – ALL of whom can afford their own dinner. Not one mention of God. Not so much as a prayer before the meal. This could have been ANY company’s “Holiday” party. This church is run like a business, the leadership shelling out TONS of money (that’s not really theirs to be shelling out in the first place) to people who don’t need it AT ALL. All the while complaining about people “leaving the church” and the decrease in funding.” Convicting words – a modern day John the Baptist.

In the commercial Christmas season, voices cry out to us to think of all that we need that we don’t have.  Instead, bell ringers at shopping centers, the angel tree we have in the back, the Project Hope boxes we have near the entrance of the church are all voices like John the Baptist’s to fill the valleys in the way of Jesus – to care for those who have little to nothing and to be creative in our giving beyond SPENDING. Those are voices worth paying attention to. For example, the ELCA has a Good Gifts catalog where you can give animals, clean drinking water, or Bibles for those in need here in the U.S. and globally in someone’s honor instead of a physical gift. Our family started giving handmade gifts or gifts that don’t cost anything (like the gift of time, for example) because we realized that we were just getting each other a bunch of stuff that we didn’t need or even want.

Finally, John the Baptist cries out a beautiful promise for us, regardless of our struggle, whether we’re feeling low or need to be cut down a few notches from our mountains: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” We will see the salvation of God in Jesus. This is truly what Christmas is all about. This is what we spend all of these weeks preparing for – to be renewed in our faith to see Jesus as the world’s greatest gift, and to be reassured that this Jesus has come for all. Again, John’s words echo the message we have chosen to share with others in our mission statement: Blessed to serve God and share our faith with all. John the Baptist has given us a message to share, not just here at church, but with all people. God calls us to be modern-day John the Baptists. I don’t mean that we all need to go out and purchase scratchy furs or start eating bugs. We don’t have to do everything that John the Baptist does. But God does call us to point to Jesus, the one who comes to save us still. God does call us to ignore the cries of the world that offer empty false promises to instead cry out with a life-giving message – we are blessed to serve God and share our faith with all. May we hear that voice the loudest. Amen.


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