A Children’s Message at Christmas

Most often Christmas feels a lot like getting stuff. You know, presents under the tree with my name on it. Christmas is often about gifts for me. Did you get any awesome gifts this morning?

Is there a gift that you gave to someone that made them very happy? Do you get as excited about giving gifts as you do getting them? I hope you do. Because that can be lots of fun too. And it makes you feel real good inside doing something for some else.

Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. So, really, we ought to be thinking about what to give to Jesus, right?  Your being in the church today is a huge gift to Jesus. Jesus likes to see you come to worship and be with other Christians.

Jesus doesn’t need any toys, though. He’s God, after all. Everything on earth is his already. He doesn’t need any more stuff. But he does want your heart. Not literally. But he wants you to love him, to believe in him, to trust him. Can you give your heart to Jesus on his birthday? I think he’d like that. All you have to say is, “I love you Jesus.”

One way we can give our hearts to Jesus is by helping others and giving to others. So, your homework over the next couple of weeks of holidays from school is this: Think about someone you know that can use a bit of cheering up. It could be a parent, a grandparent – it could be someone who is sad, or sick, or lonely. Think about that person, and pray for them each day. And then talk with an adult about something you can do for them: a phone call, a note in the mail, a visit, or a little gift/craft you can make for them.

Jesus would like that very much. That would make him very happy on his birthday!

Let’s sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, because it’s his birthday after all that we celebrate every Christmas Day.


Christmas Eve – When Holy Happens

Please read Luke 2:1-20

Now, children, please listen to me: Your battery-operated candle is NOT to be used as a light-sabre during worship; it is not a Morse Code signal light; I know it is dark in here, but it is also not a flashlight to blind Mommy or Daddy or grandma or your friend across the isle.

Please turn it on at the appropriate time, hold it upright, when and only when we sing: “Silent Night, Holy Night!” It is a holy moment, after all. Try to be holy! Oh, and don’t forget to turn it off when the song is over!

We sing for “silent night, holy night” and yet, there is so much about this time of year that is anything but “silent” and “holy”. We recognize this, too, in our lives. Whether we’re dealing with high levels of anxiety, fear, guilt, or anger; whether we are suffering from physical, mental or emotional illness; whether we grieve our losses, loved ones no longer with us to share this Christmas time; whether our hearts are heavy by all the violence, poverty, injustice and pain we see in our dark world … So much in our lives can naturally rebel against any notion of appreciating any day, let alone this one as “holy”. Heaven can seem so far from us.

We are here tonight, nevertheless, because something about this time, we recognize at a deeper level — deeper even than sentiment and warm fuzzies — is holy. It is a holy moment. We believe that something very special happens this sacred, hallowed Eve, when the thin veil between heaven and earth is for a moment lifted and we receive a taste of the glory and love of God.

So, despite all that is not, let us this night still lift our sometimes meagre voices and sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night” — and maybe holy will happen. When DOES holy happen? Here are some observations about when holy happens.

At Christmas, what is “holy” is associated with a gift – starting with the gift of heaven in Jesus, and all the way to the practice of gift-giving and receiving in general.

As far as gifts are concerned, I admit, I often judge a gift by its functionability. Can I use it? Is it practical? I want to show you a gift I received at my birthday party a couple of months ago; the theme of the birthday party was “tropical beach”. This is a diorama my 7-year old daughter made.

As I received and cherished this gift, I realized that holy just happened — when I appreciated the gift not for its useability but for what it signified, the meaning behind it — which was the love of my daughter.

At Christmas, a baby was given to save humanity. A baby is the gift. Think about it: A baby is quite ordinary; babies are born every day. In that sense a baby is not extraordinary. For the religious of 1st century Palestine, they awaited a Saviour who would be extraordinary — someone who would come in might, in political strength, a Messiah to overthrow the Roman occupiers of their land.

But a baby is vulnerable, weak. And yet we cannot help but love babies. A baby is loved not for what it can do; a baby is loved not because he or she can earn your love. A baby is loved simply for who she or he is. Holy happens when the gift is appreciated for what it is, not for what it can be used. And THAT’S what is important.

Secondly, holy happens when there aren’t any pre-conditions. Holy happens quite unexpectedly. Holy often happens as a surprise, when we haven’t engineered and controlled and manipulated people and events in our lives to produce a holy moment. Think about what brings tears to your eyes — tears of heartfelt joy and even sadness; likely, something happens that you weren’t expecting, when you aren’t trying too hard to make holy happen. For example, reflecting on a manger scene or the lighted star atop the Christmas tree, in a quiet, restful moment.

Sometimes we work ourselves into a tizzy before Christmas because we believe it’s all up to us to make holy happen. Therefore we often suffer the consequences of stress, burn-out, anxiety, and depression.

The good news of Christmas is that it’s not our effort that lifts the veil between heaven and earth to create that holy moment in our lives.

Certainly it involves some effort to come together. There’s surely something to be said about our commitment to be together as a church community. As families and friends you gather over the holidays in your homes to be together — yes.

But it is often in the creative unknowing of just being together where the holy emerges in those unsuspecting moments.

Finally, holy happens when we experience these special days, moments, as something meant “for you”. The diorama wasn’t just a home-made craft of anything. My daughter made me an image of a place I just love to be — a beach, and a tropical one at that. The gift, quite ordinary, quite unuseable, is nevertheless meaningful BECAUSE it is personal, for me.

When we are invited to receive the Sacrament, the Holy Communion, we use simple bread and cup to signify a Holy Meal. It is quite ordinary. Actually, as meals go it’s quite UN-spectacular. And yet, it is meaningful because Jesus, the divine and human Son of God, gave it to us. It is meaningful because the grace, mercy, forgiveness and love that the babe in Bethlehem symbolizes, is given “for you”.

Martin Luther emphasized those words in the Communion: “give for YOU”. Those are likely the most important words spoken in the Communion liturgy: the bread the cup are given personally “for you”.

Holy happens when a direct connection is established between your heart and the very heart of God, through the baby born in Bethlehem — the greatest gift of all.

When we receive a gift for what it is (not for what it does), when we let holy happen (not force it or make it happen), when we appreciate the gift meant for me personally (not just for everyone else) — then, who knows? Holy might just happen.

Here’s the surprise: Because of Christmas holy doesn’t just happen tonight when we sing “Silent Night, Holy Night”, not just only on Christmas and Easter – as holy as those events can be. Holy happens everywhere and at any time; from Monday through Saturday just as much as on Sunday; in your home, at work, at school, in the hockey rink just as much as it does in those “official” holy places.

Holy happens even when we’re not paying attention. Remember, Jesus was born when most of his world was sleeping. So, let our Christmas prayer be that our hearts are open to the holy happening right before our very eyes in every time and every place.


Christmas Day – Let the Light In

Please read John 1:1-14

Recently I’ve been wearing these new “progressive lens” eye-glasses to help my vision. It’s taken some getting used to. For one thing, I can’t simply walk around looking at things in the same way anymore. There are a few things I’ve had to practice doing differently.

I’m grateful for these lenses. The glass functions to direct the rays of light in a certain way as to heighten clarity and focus. The glass lets the light refract through the lens to give me the best possible vision. Although it’s something I’ve had to get used to, it is a gift to have the opportunity to see better.

Learning to wear glasses for the first time is very much like learning how to “wear” the faith. After all, Saint Paul casts the image in his letter to the Galatians of learning to be “clothed with Christ”, to “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). How do we “wear” our faith in Jesus the newborn king?

The first thing I’ve had to learn to do wearing my new glasses, is to look through a specific point on the glass, depending on whether I’m looking at something close to me or far away. I have to be intentional about where I look through the glass if I want clarity. I have to focus my sight.

I can’t just indiscriminately look at everything in my vision and expect to see all things clearly; these lenses don’t work that way. I have to prioritize my vision. And that means, I have to think about what I’m doing; and then I have to make choices.

At Christmas we proclaim that the “light of the world has now come” (John 1:9). Do I see this Light? God spoke through the prophet Isaiah as much to our world as his: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not see it?” (Isaiah 43:19) Do you see the Light of the world in your life and around you?

If at first I cannot see God in my life, I have to ask myself, “Am I looking in the right place?” Am I making choices, prioritizing what is important in my life, doing things that contribute to health and wholeness, accepting my limitations that I can’t “look at everything” and do everything?

The truth is, Jesus is called “Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23), which means “God is with us.” The Light has come into the dark world, yet the darkness has not overcome it. If I can’t see clearly the Light of the world in my life, perhaps I’m not looking in the right place.

For one thing, Jesus is more likely to be found in the least expected places and people. Not just in the happy, successful places of pleasure, glory, comfort and joys of life. But especially in the unexpected places of our need, want, brokeness, failure and pain. The Christian God is not afraid to go into the dark places, after all.

Jesus was born in a dirty manger in a barn for animals in the middle of the night. Jesus – the Light of the world – was born surrounded by people of ill repute (those shepherds!) and foreigners from the East (those Magi – folks from other religions!) These are the people and places in whose midst Jesus first came.

Do you see Jesus in your life? Part of the answer to that question, I believe, depends on where you’re looking and the choices you make.

The second thing I’ve had to learn to wear my glasses well is: Don’t hide behind the glasses. Given my personality especially, I can easily fall into the trap of hiding behind my glasses and not looking at what is before me; either I want to deny the truth of what is before me, or I am afraid to engage it, or pretend it’s something that it is not.

For example, at first when I’ve been wearing my glasses and talking to people, I’ve had to force myself like never before to actually look in people’s eyes. It was easy wearing glasses to “stay within myself” – behind the rims. I think it’s sometimes easy wearing our faith to “stay within ourselves” and either ignore or deny the truth of what is beyond the church.

Wearing glasses, I need especially now to look beyond the boundaries of my world into the vast realm of God’s world. “For God so loved THE WORLD that He gave His only Son” (John 3:16) – the message of Christmas in a nutshell. God sent Jesus into a dark world – to unsuspecting shepherds, a teenage couple, foreigners from the East. It’s not just about me. It’s just as much about God’s love for others who may not be like me at all.

Finally, I need to trust my peripheral vision. Sometimes I need to take off my glasses, especially when I’m walking in the dark. And when I find myself in darkness, if I’m to see anything, find my way – the path before me, and allow whatever light there is to help me, I then need to trust what I see at the periphery of my sight – what seems to be just outside my grasp. I need to trust in my God-given, innate ability to see without seeing. Let me explain:

On a moonlit night, the amount of light washed over the land is only about 10% of full sunlight. Imagine also the effect of one candle burning in a large, dark room: it doesn’t illuminate the whole room, just a part of it.

When you are trying to move in the dark, if you try too hard to see, it won’t work. If you look directly on the path or at that which you want to see, you’ll start imagining things! Rather, you have to look to the side a bit and let your peripheral vision guide you and allow you to see something of what in truth is there. You’ll get a truer picture of what’s ahead by letting go of the compulsion to manage directly your sight or assuming the only way forward is to wait until noon-time on a bright, cloud-free, sunny day. Admitedly, it takes some practice to walk well in semi-darkness.

Saint Paul wrote, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), and again: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). In other words, we move forward not so much by exercising our own effort to see, or expecting to see everything crystal-clearly.

Often faith will mean trusting. Martin Luther’s definition of faith included the centrality of trust in a power greater than what I can do alone. The effect of faith is to see beyond what I can grasp with the full effort of my will.

Listen to the words of Jesus, who speaks to us today: “You did not choose me, I chose you” (John 15:16). Saint Paul reinforces this message when he writes, “Our justification depends not on human will or exertion, but on God …” (Romans 9:16) I need to appreciate the truth of God’s wondrous mystery.

Employing all these strategies of “wearing our faith” well is irrelevant unless we appreciate first and foremost the critical and foundational connerstone of belief in Christianity: The Light first comes to us. Focusing our energy, Engaging others, Learning to let go and trust — none of these work unless our eyes are first open to receive the light. “Sight” only happens as a gift to us.

This is good news: The light has come into the world! The Light has come!

Let the eyes of our heart be open to receive the light and love of One who has already come into the world, and continues to come to each one of us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Advent 2B – Waiting to Give

Please read Isaiah 40 and Mark 1

A six-year old girl asked her father, the pastor, why before preaching a sermon he always bowed his head in a moment of silence.

“Well, my dear,” the pastor answered his daughter, “before I preach I ask God to help me preach a good sermon.”

“But Daddy,” the daughter responded, “You’ve been praying that prayer for a long time already. Why hasn’t God answered it?”

Indeed, why do we pray? What kind of answer are we looking for? Praying is often what we do when there’s nothing left for us to do. When we have to wait.

Advent is about watching and waiting. During this season of anticipation, we say we wait for Christmas to come. If you’d ask a child, this means looking forward to presents, toys and the fun of getting more stuff wrapped up under the Christmas tree.

I suspect to a large extent even we adults never really outgrow this kind of waiting. We look forward to the next thing we can get for ourselves — an education, a job, a spouse, a child, a house, a vacation, more stuff. As we age we wait to be rewarded, to receive accolades, fame, the latest toy, whatever it may be …. Waiting is basically motivated by self-gratification; that is, obtaining something more for ourselves.

But time soon runs out on us. Our lives progress to a point where if we are going to wait, and wait well, waiting must soon become something else. Our waiting needs to be transformed into a self-giving motif rather than a selfish one. If it isn’t our natural ageing and nearing prospect of our death that propels us towards this maturity, than it must be the grace of God, regardless of our age.

So, why will we wait? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in response to another question that may be a tad easier to answer: For what do we ask this Advent time in which we wait for the coming celebration of “God with us” — Emmanuel?

When I was about ten years old my parents asked my brother and me to think about a special request to bring to the manger, to the baby Jesus. I was instructed NOT to ask Jesus for a toy or any “stuff”. It was a challenge for me to think of a prayer that was a bit more substantial than asking for some ‘thing’ for myself.

For what do we ask from our Lord this coming season? More stuff? More money? More material blessings? Or, are our prayers more focused on our health, protection and safety? Whatever it is, our prayers are key to understanding the true desire of our hearts.

The Lord’s Prayer is a good place to start for guidance on how to pray, for what to ask, and how to wait. When the disciples didn’t know how to pray, they asked Jesus to teach them. And he taught them. If you look carefully at all the petitions of the Our Father, most of the verses have to do with who God is, what God will do, or what we ask of God. Except for one line.

In the most beloved prayer of Christianity, the only thing we say we will do, is forgive others. “…. as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Of all the things we want to do, of all the things we think we need or must do as Christians, forgiveness is fundamental here. Forgiveness is what we wait for. Forgiveness is what we do. Forgiveness is what we give.

Why will we wait this Advent? We are given this time to contemplate the state of our hearts. Because forgiveness starts as a quality of the inner life. We are given this time to reflect, affirm and practice our God-given capacity to give forgiveness, to receive it, to be generous with our lives, in the love and grace of God. Especially where there is need.

The Attawapiskat community on the shores of James Bay in northern Ontario has been in the news recently when the town government declared a state of emergency. The deplorable conditions in which the people there live look a lot like what we see in the developing world, and would never at first think this could happen in our own backyard — in Canada!

We’ve heard much analysis and argument about how this came to be. So many reasons that only justify our inaction: the government is at fault since they knew about this for a long time; the first nations people can’t take care of themselves and modern infrastructure; the economy does not support their way of life and vice versa; cultural disconnects; ongoing abuses — you name it. We can sit here and argue about it while human beings hundreds of miles north of this very place will die this winter.

The only real solution right now, is grace. We need to give. Our relatively rich society in southern Canada needs to give so that they in the north will not suffer any more.

A quality of forgiveness and grace — indeed the Christian life — is “letting go”, releasing the other person from your anger, releasing yourself from whatever binds you. The quality of letting go of controlling the outcomes of our efforts to manage life for our own benefit, on our own terms.

Richard Rohr writes about the Cherokee chiefs who said to their young braves, “Why do you spend your time in brooding? Don’t you know you are being driven by great winds across the sky?” Rohr continues to write: Don’t you know you’re part of a much bigger pattern? But you’re not in control of it, any more than you would be of great winds. You and I are a small part of a much bigger mystery. (Everything Belongs, page 120)

Father Jack Costello, a Jesuit priest and President of Regis College in Toronto said about the work of the Holy Spirit — often described as a great wind — “the Holy Spirit gives us freedom, peace, and makes us courageous and reckless people.”

I often imagine John the Baptist an exemplar of the above description of someone “reckless” in God’s grace and Spirit. John the Baptist came announcing the coming Lord and repentence for the forgiveness of sin (Mark 1:4). He came proclaiming that he and the powers of the world were not in charge. Our lives are not governed by human history. What we experience in our lives – good and bad – is not the work of our hands alone.

Rather, our lives are part of God’s history, God’s story of salvation. The world and history is governed by God, who will make in “the rough places a plain”, the “uneven ground level” who will “lift up every valley” and make “every mountain and hill low” (Isaiah 40). Our lives are in God’s hands.

The true message of Advent is a shock to the system: The message of Advent is about God’s decision to let go. God decided to release His Son into the world. God decided to self-disclose. God decided to make God-self vulnerable by becoming fully human. What a huge risk! What a divine letting-go!

What if waiting this Advent was NOT motivated by the prospect and illusion of what more I can get for myself? What if waiting this Advent was about what I would let go of this Christmas. What can I give of myself and let go of? — for the sake of my family, my community, my church, my nation, my world?

After all, it is God’s church, God’s community, God’s nation and God’s world to begin with!

Thanks be to God! Amen.